Please Give

Movie review: Nicole Holofcener's 'Please Give' is disarmingly profound

Playing a woman who takes empathy to the extreme, Catherine Keener is just one reason to be grateful for Nicole Holofcener's observant comedy-drama
Playing a woman who takes empathy to the extreme, Catherine Keener is just one reason to be grateful for Nicole Holofcener's observant comedy-drama "Please Give." (Piotr Redlinski/sony Pictures Classics)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

Fans of writer-director Nicole Holofcener can be forgiven for feeling like they're members of an exclusive club. Since making her debut in 1996 with "Walking and Talking," starring then-unknown Catherine Keener and Anne Heche, Holofcener has accrued a rabid, loyal following for her singular brand of observant wit and aching tenderness.

Both pour forth in abundance in "Please Give," a wry, wistful portrait of contemporary urban manners. Keener -- who has starred in all of Holofcener's films -- plays Kate, who with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), owns an upscale vintage home furnishings store in Greenwich Village. Kate spends her days scavenging the homes of the recently deceased, looking for good mid-century pieces to sell in her shop. As if that's not enough to make her feel like a heartless vulture, she and her husband have purchased the apartment next door, and they will add it to theirs once its tenant has shuffled off the mortal coil.

That tenant is an irascible, downright unpleasant elderly lady named Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is tended by a devoted granddaughter named Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and, once in a while, Rebecca's much less warm-and-fuzzy sister Mary (Amanda Peet). The swirling interactions of these two families, tied up as they are with envy, resentment, guilt and impending death, make for just the right emotional stew for Holofcener's piquant seasoning of sharp humor and disarming pathos.

Keener spends most of "Please Give" looking drawn and haggard, her weighed-down physical appearance echoing the interior life of a woman who has taken empathy to an almost pathological extreme. She sees poverty and pain everywhere, even when it's not there: A compulsive giver of money to street people, she offers a doggie-bagged dinner to a casually dressed African American man outside a restaurant, only to be told he's waiting to go in for dinner. Her heaviness is leavened by Alex, imbued by Platt with an unself-conscious ebullience that provides the movie with a welcome sense of ease. "We buy from the children of dead people!" he chirps when a customer asks where he and Kate get their inventory, and his wife looks on, mortified.

"Please Give" is one of those movies that can be enjoyed simply for its funny portraits of human foibles and fumbling grasps at intimacy -- but it's also deceivingly profound. Holofcener has a knack for soothing viewers with the rhythms of quiet jokes and mordant moments and then ambushing them with scenes of breathtaking sweetness and meaning. Most of those sequences in "Please Give" feature Kate and Alex's 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), whose pleadings for her mother's care and attention have been sublimated in a search for the perfect pair of bluejeans.

That might sound like just the kind of empty materialism that brings Kate to tears, but in Holofcener's sensitive, assured hands even a pair of pants takes on spiritual significance. "Please Give" is deeply entertaining: that is, it's happy to offer surface pleasures even as it celebrates finer things, such as cultivating gratitude and an awareness of our imperfect attempts to do the right thing.

If you've never seen a Nicole Holofcener movie, start with "Please Give," and then work your way back. And welcome to the club.

*** 1/2 R. At AMC Loews Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains sexual content, nudity and profanity. 90 minutes.

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