Grand Illusions

'Please Give'

Dealing with a cold, you’ve probably taken one of those “time release” capsules that administer micropellets of antihistamine at intervals, thus ensuring a full night’s sleep. Please Give, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, is a time-release movie that provides information about its characters in stages, thus ensuring your complicated interest in them.

Consider the first scene. Two attractive New Yorkers, the middle-aged Kate and the twentyish Rebecca, enter their apartment building’s elevator together, with Kate nervously attempting chit-chat, which the younger woman stonily rebuffs. They get out at the same floor, proceed down a hall and let themselves into adjacent apartments, with neither Kate’s uneasiness nor Rebecca’s apparent hostility dispelled. Ah, the big city, we may sigh, breeder of alienation.

But next we are in Kate’s apartment and she is wailing to her teenaged daughter Abby, “Why does she [Rebecca] hate me?” And the girl glibly explains what her mother already knows: “When she sees you, she sees death.” Kate and her husband Alex have purchased the apartment next door but must await the demise of the current occupant, Rebecca’s grandmother, before having the dividing wall demolished to expand their domain. But that doesn’t make me evil, Kate protests. “Right,” her kid snarks back, “you’re a saint.” And actually, though Kate may not be a saint, she is certainly a penitent trying to make up for her sins through charitable acts. It’s not just the apartment that troubles her conscience but also the fact that, as owner of an antique-furniture store, she makes her margin by paying as little as possible for the possessions of dead people, which their heirs may not have had properly appraised. Kate does feel like a predator and she doesn’t like it.

And the young woman next door who despises her? Though generously spending time with her grandmother when not at work as a technician in a mammography lab, Rebecca lives with her beautiful older sister Mary a few neighborhoods away. When she tells her sister how she feels about Kate and her husband, Mary retorts, “You think, if they hadn’t bought the apartment, she wouldn’t die?” Ah, now we see: Rebecca has let her love for her grandmother make her unjust, but Mary is admirably realistic and fair. But wait a minute—Holofcener keeps releasing new bits of information that give us second thoughts. Mary’s unfairness to Kate comes from her overall view of life as a dog-eat-dog world where only good looks, robust health, and physical comfort matter. She’s willing to spend only a minimum of time with the old lady and, even then, she vents her disgust with senility in general and her contempt for ancient Andra in particular. Mary is a bitch, right? But then at a dinner Kate gives for Andra and the girls, Mary repels her hosts with her blunt (though not unfriendly) questions about the postmortem renovation, but wins over the fifteen-year-old, acne-ridden Abby with her advice about facial care. (Mary works in a beauty salon.) So even bitches can bring aid and comfort if circumstances allow?

And that’s how Please Give works. You have to suspend judgment until you have more information about the character, and you can’t have enough information until the movie is over. The great master of this kind of generous dramaturgy was Jean Renoir, and though I wouldn’t suggest that Please Give comes anywhere near the glory of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Holofcener does seem to subscribe to Renoir’s premise, “Everyone has his reasons.” In Renoir this generosity seems to spring from an almost greedy craving for the riches of life—the anticipation of more joy, more love, and more adventures just around the corner—but in Holofcener the compassion grows out of a sense of mortality. In fact, I have never seen such a life-embracing comedy so saturated with images and talk of decay and death. Under the opening credits there is a montage of aged breasts being placed upon stands so that the mammogram technician, Rebecca, may take x-rays. The sequence startles with its abrasiveness—the breasts might be just so many pounds of chopped meat plonked onto a butcher’s scales. It is this very rudeness about the body and its unavoidable frailties that ushers in the director’s vision of all humans under a death sentence that requires us to muster as much fellow feeling as we can.

But Holofcener is out for laughs, too. Her milieu is Woody Allen’s: upscale Manhattan, its apartment dwellers, their stores, restaurants, and boutiques, their neuroses and romantic quandaries. While Allen surrounds his heroes with snobs, bigots, hustlers, and know-it-alls begging to be deflated by well-timed sarcasm, Please Give’s protagonists might themselves serve as such targets. Yet, though we often laugh at the characters, Holofcener brings us too close to them to laugh them off.

Take the moment when old Andra, treated by Rebecca to a leaf-peeping excursion for her birthday, is asked about her surviving friends. The ninety-one-year-old admits she has none because they’ve all died, and she didn’t have many in the first place. With a little self-satisfied duck of the head, she adds, “I was very selective.” No one replies that her prickliness probably had more to do with it than her high standards. No one needs to. And who is to say that self-delusion mustn’t serve as comfort in the winter of old age?

What follows has a poignancy that doesn’t mug us for our tears. While the others ooh and ah about the scenery, Andra can only wander a few yards away from the group and gaze at nothing in particular. She doesn’t see any beauty in the death of leaves and can’t understand the purpose of the trip at all. Rebecca tries to call her grandma’s attention to the view but soon gives up, not in disgust but in smiling acceptance of Andra’s unbreachable inner solitude.

Holofcener’s script is tight and cannily structured. Her staging is loose and spontaneous, with the camera always on the alert for facial expressions or behavioral tics that enrich or belie the dialogue. This makes her more dependent than most directors on the ability of her cast not only to interact but also to show an awareness of the mood descending upon everyone involved in any given scene. Notice, during the dinner party, how Kate slowly sinks lower and lower in her seat as Mary generates bad vibes with her callousness.

All the actors come through for Holofcener. Oliver Platt’s Alex, an overgrown teddy bear, is lovable yet exasperating, sometimes both at once. Ann Guilbert, as Andra, makes decrepitude fascinating, while at the other end of the age spectrum, Sarah Steele’s Abby captures the universal me-me-me of adolescence. Amanda Peet projects the lip-glossed arrogance of someone who spends a lot of time in front of mirrors and on tanning beds but never lets us forget the fissure in Mary’s armor, while Rebecca Hall keeps the nicer sister fascinating with a guarded look in her eyes whether she is smiling, flirting, accusing, or consoling.

And then there is Catherine Keener as Kate. If anyone doubts that acting, at its best, needs just as much interior life as writing, let him compare Keener’s performance here with her insensitive office worker in Being John Malkovich and her plucky, supportive Harper Lee in Capote. Same face, different souls, and without any tricks of makeup or radical intervention by the camera or special effects. This Kate is an intriguing paradox: a woman so intelligent and empathetic that she seems to understand everyone around her but cannot fully comprehend what’s motivating her own actions. This makes her the perfect heroine of a comedy about trying to do the right thing in an all-too-complicated and fragile world.

Published in the 2010-06-18 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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