By Scott Martin
Please Give, USA, 2010
Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
When Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), the novelist main character in As Good as It Gets (1997) is asked “How do you write such great women?” he responds, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” Nicole Holofcener didn’t take that advice, and she’s probably the best writer of women in Hollywood, behind the indelible Woody Allen, that is; I don’t think anyone can top him, but, as he’s in a class of his own (it can be said that Woody writes Woody’s women well, and that’s it), Holofcener might be the best in the game. For a further example, seek out Lovely & Amazing, her first feature from 2001, also starring Catherine Keener. Please Give and Lovely & Amazing aren’t too similar in content, but the aftertaste is the same; you’ve just witnessed something daring and tangible, something more exciting than most things studios push out these days. Please Give is a darkly sweet comedy about the destructive and oddly uplifting power of guilt and, subsequently, what it does to a person. Or, rather, a group of people.
Kate (Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) live an interesting life; they’re essentially ambulance chasers, but in the antique business. They run a local furniture shop and get their goods collecting from the children of the recently dead. Kate is a woman with a warped sense of guilt; she gives seemingly large amounts of money to the homeless and does her best to volunteer for charities. Nothing seems to help, especially because she’s married to the charmingly goofy Alex, who treats her like a partner in everything. Nothing seems to be enough for her. They live next door to a cantankerous old woman named Andra (Ann Guilbert) who is pushing 90 and who hates just about everything in everything she sees. She’s cared for by her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), who have their own reservations, either because of prior plans or their own dispositions. Mary can’t stand the old woman, and Rebecca wouldn’t know who to care for without her. Sarah Steele plays Kate and Alex’s teenage witch, Abby.
Each character is given something to feel terrible about. Consider the film a sort of rat race for who can come to terms with it all first. Of course, the entire point of the film isn’t whether you can come to terms with your guilt; quite the opposite, really. It’s more about your guilt coming to terms with you, and how it affects your daily routines: your jobs, your breakfasts, your friends and loved ones, your appearances, your homes, etc. Guilt creeps in like doubt, and together they breed. Sometimes, doubt and guilt make a powerful enough companion to fix whatever is wrong and set someone straight,but more often than not, it can crumble a person to nothing.
Kate and Alex are waiting for Andra to finally kick the proverbial bucket so they can expand their apartment, essentially adding three new rooms to their already lush New York pad, and having made thousands off of random pieces of furnitures poached from surviving children and their loved ones, money is certainly no object. Mary continuously quizzes them as to when they’ll make an offer; she is a cold, distant and selfish person who really only “has time” for the random affair or two. Rebecca, on the other hand, truly wants to be loved, even if it means putting up with some terrible dates every now and then. Mary and Rebecca are roommates as well as sisters, and one can assume this is only so they can both live close enough to their mother to take care of her. All the characters have their own sense of ambiguous, disaffected being, but each wind up being connected to one another, even in the slightest of glances. A large part of the film lies in the reactionary shots of other characters.
The performances come from actors at the top of their game. Catherine Keener is always a disarming presence in her roles; no matter who she plays, she always has a sisterly feel about her. Maybe not a sister you like very much, or would even talk to, but she feels like someone close to you. That’s her appeal. The same is true of Oliver Platt, who always has a brotherly charm about him. They work incredibly well together, especially as a married couple, with whatever problems they might be having. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet, whose performance nearly steals the film, have that same sort of charm. Even when they all sit down and have dinner together, it’s like these people were drawn together simply by their personalities, not by a plot device. The real scene-stealer, however, comes from Ann Guilbert as the 90-year-old warhorse Andra, Rebecca and Mary’s mother. Her bitter wit and razor-sharp comedic timing, combined with being completely lovable, takes her over the top of everyone else’s game and makes her a star.
It takes a brave screenplay to make guilt sound like something promising, and even better actors to make that believable. Thankfully, Holofcener assembled the best team she possibly could have. Honestly, I can’t offer enough praise. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for days, even if it’s just replaying tiny punchlines in my head. There are so many small moments with so much laughter that it might take a few repeat viewings just to catch all the nuances. I love comedies that have heart, and balls. And guts. Even moreso, comedies that can stand on their own two feet, with a stentorian voice, and stand for what they believe in. It’s heartwarming knowing that people still make movies like this.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com