In the comedy Please Give, Manhattan's most generous woman lives next door to the planet's most ungrateful old lady.
Kate (Catherine Keener) isn't a major philanthropist, only because she doesn't have a fortune. She and husband Alex (Oliver Platt) live comfortably by reselling vintage furniture acquired cheaply from the recently deceased. Kate mitigates her guilt about this with questionable acts of altruism. She hemorrhages $20 bills when she encounters panhandlers, guilts her teen daughter about $200 jeans, and looks for volunteer opportunities that sap the energy out of her marriage. Kate "gives till it hurts" without noticing that it hurts those closest to her.
Next door lives a witch. Andra (Ann Guilbert) is a joyless crone with a heart like an olive pit. Her condo adjoins Alex and Kate's, and they agreeably run errands for her while waiting for her to die (they plan to buy her place, knock out the wall and expand). They cross paths with Andra's granddaughters — sweet, patient Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and vain, grumpy Mary (Amanda Peet). Alex can't help noticing that Mary is, on the outside, a beautiful person. Complications ensue.
Please Give is the fourth feature from writer-director Nicole Holofcener. She once worked for Woody Allen, but her sensibility is closer to Albert Brooks, with more empathy for women. Her movies resemble life: great cast, bewildering plot. She tells morality tales that don't push a specific agenda. Holofcener prefers gently satirical questions to facile answers.
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There are moments of sharp humor. When neurotic Kate applies as a helper in a retirement home, the manager shrewdly concludes that she'd bum out the old folks. But Holofcener doesn't make her characters into buffoons. More often, she invites us to see with bemused compassion.
A strong cast helps Holofcener free her characters to be as complex, conflicted and contradictory as the people we know. Keener and Platt shine as nice people in a committed, flawed, tepid marriage. They speak in the telegraphic shorthand of people who have been together for ages. Their scenes, minuets of guilt, resentment and forgiveness, unfold in a natural, unforced rhythm. Even caustic neighbor Andra has humanizing moments.
Holofcener hasn't made a great movie yet, but she hasn't created any bad ones, and her gentle humanism is to be cherished.