Ann Hornaday interviews 'Please Give' filmmaker Nicole Holofcener

Staff artist Patterson Clark created the sketch of Nicole Holofcener using the Brushes app on the iPad.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

Having lunch with Nicole Holofcener is a lot like being in a Nicole Holofcener movie. Which is a lot like being Nicole Holofcener's friend.

The writer-director, in town to do interviews about her new movie "Please Give," arrives at the Iron Gate's back courtyard fresh from a television studio. "That's probably why I look a little makeuppy, sorry." She's dressed in jeans, a prim button-down blouse, black cardigan and hip, heavy-rimmed glasses. After ordering a Diet Coke, she asks a waiter for a straw, only to be told the buzzy downtown restaurant doesn't use them.

"Really?" Holofcener says in the peeved-amused tone of one of her heroines. "What's wrong with straws?" She smiles across the table, incredulous. "Isn't that weird? 'We don't use straws.' Maybe it's a wasteful thing."

Holofcener pauses, presumably taking in a mental picture of a landfill brimming with crumpled plastic pipettes. "But I like my Diet Coke with a straw," she says meekly. Sigh. "This is a nice menu. What are you going to have?"

Such are the absurdities and accommodations that bedevil and enchant the world of Nicole Holofcener. Since making her debut in 1996 with the friendship comedy "Walking and Talking," and subsequently with "Lovely & Amazing" and "Friends With Money," Holofcener has earned a cult following for her observantly witty humor, frank depictions of female relationships and tone-perfect portraits of cultural creatives striving and stumbling their way through bourgeois urban habitats.

For a generation that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, Holofcener is their Nancy Meyers, Woody Allen and Judd Apatow all rolled into one, a chronicler of what it means to be of a certain age (middle) at a certain time (turn of the 21st century) in a certain place (New York or Los Angeles).

In "Please Give," Catherine Keener plays Kate, who runs a mid-century home furnishings shop in New York with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), and lives in near-constant guilt over acquiring their inventory from the children of dead people. Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment next to theirs, occupied by a bitter, unfriendly old woman whose demise will mean they can finally renovate. Kate's attempts to reach out to the woman and her nieces -- played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet -- are nearly always met with mild disaster, as Kate grapples with her ambivalence over wanting and having and getting and spending.

Like all of Holofcener's movies, "Please Give" is based on a real situation -- a friend of hers really did buy an apartment belonging to an elderly neighbor, but the two enjoyed a warm friendship. Given the Holofcener touch, the story becomes funny and sad, tart and tender, gimlet-eyed but never cynical.

The film opens with a montage of close-ups of women's breasts being unceremoniously slapped, squeezed and otherwise smooshed into mammogram machines. It boldly confronts Hollywood's obsessions with women's breasts and the "chick flicks" that portray women's lives in high-gloss, perfectly toned fictions.

"I definitely know that I was kind of blurting something out, which I tend to do," says Holofcener, who turned 50 in March. "I guess I do like to dispel myths and kind of counteract [expletive] that's in other movies. Like, 'Really? This is what my life looks like. This is what boobs look like in a mammogram machine.' "

For Holofcener's fans, "Please Give" may feel like something of a geographical and topical bookend to her 2006 film "Friends With Money," which was set in Los Angeles and starred Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Aniston and Keener as friends in dramatically different financial circumstances, which are thrown into sharper relief when one of them needs a loan.

"I'm still working it out," Holofcener says, after ordering the crab-shrimp-and-avocado salad. "I'm still dealing with the money and the real estate and the blunders, making Catherine Keener play a buffoon, which she does so well."

Keener has starred in all of Holofcener's movies, and the two are close off the set as well. They live close to each other in L.A. and their kids are friends (Holofcener has twin 12-year-old sons). "It's been great," she says of their collaboration, "and completely unplanned. And we're probably gearing up for a separation, of sorts. It just feels like it's time to work with somebody else. Not forever, but -- oh, look at that dessert. Is that bread pudding?"

Since making its debut at Sundance in January, and opening in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, "Please Give" has received good reviews, although Holofcener notes, "I keep reading reviews that feel free to say how terrible 'Friends With Money' was, and how good this one is. And it's sort of like, 'Ouch? Thanks?' " And she allows that, having mastered the art of pinching pennies (her movies cost just a few million dollars to make, the cost of the car chase in "Date Night"), she's ready for bigger budgets and maybe bigger audiences.

"If the script is right, I'm not above doing a movie with broad appeal. If it's good," she says. "And I think some of them are good. And then I'd have a lot more money. But, I imagine, a much bigger headache."

Holofcener is currently adapting Laura Lippman's crime novel "Every Secret Thing," with McDormand producing. Holofcener also rewrites Hollywood scripts for movies that rarely get made, and she directs for television, most recently the HBO series "Bored to Death." They're "good jobs," she says. "They pay not that great, but the residuals are great. And they're good experiences. I like to have fun, even if it doesn't pay well."

A waitress comes by, asking if anyone wants dessert. "That was bread pudding, wasn't it?" Holofcener asks wistfully. "Yeah, no thanks. . . . I'm on the thin train." Sigh.

She never did get that straw. "You know what, I don't want a straw," she says, before adding confidingly, "Let's pick another battle."

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