“Please Give,” the new comedy written and directed by native New Yorker Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money”) is about miserable urbanites of three generations, behaving miserably, being miserable to each other. Hellbent on proving her thesis that tactlessness is the most vibrant quality in just about everyone—the helpless elderly, adolescent daughters, guilty liberals—Holofcener creates six characters in search of self-worth, operating, for the most part, within a very claustrophobic world: two adjoining New York City apartments.
And not only do these six belong to that dreaded Neurotic New Yorker subspecies so overly examined within mainstream Hollywood: with one exception, these are some of the most obnoxiously neurotic characters ever seen outside of old-school Woody Allen films.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t laughs scattered throughout, most of them stemming from that Larry David-esque, “gasp, I can’t believe she said that!” school of comedy. Holofcener has a piercing wit about her, and she’s remarkably adept at transcribing the language of contempt; the characters are alternately smug in a direct way, passively smug or smug while trying to be the opposite of smug.
At other times, they’re just vicious. Late in the film, Mary (Amanda Peet), the sullen, image-obsessed granddaughter of Andra (Ann Guilbert), offers to buy groceries for Andra. Throughout the movie, Andra has made no bones about vastly favoring Mary’s sister, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), her voluntary caretaker. “You’ll see. When my knee heals, I’ll be able to shop alone,” Andra barks at Mary. “Arthritis gets worse, not better” is Mary’s quietly chilling reply.
Not that the openly sour Andra is much nicer to shy, selfless Rebecca. When she receives a pair of pajamas for her birthday, for instance, her shrill response is, “Too fancy for bed!” Nonetheless, Rebecca, whose day job is also on the saintly side—she performs mammograms for lonely old women— keeps up her martyr-like role to Andra, while Mary, an absurdly overtanned cosmetician, bitterly waits for the mean old coot to die.
Mary is not alone in her wishes. The married couple next door to Andra, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), already profiteers from buying and reselling dead people’s furniture, want to gut Andra’s apartment and build a master bedroom. In the film’s pivotal, funniest scene, Kate, Alex and their awkward teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) have the other three over for dinner. Indecencies of every kind abound: Mary gets drunk and puts Kate and Alex on the spot about their renovation plans, insulting both them and her own grandmother; Abby, infuriated when her mother makes light of her newfound zit, emerges from her bedroom with panties over her face.
Throughout the film, Holofcener boldly lets no one off easily for their foibles, even the seemingly charitable. Kate, for example, unhesitatingly gives twenty-dollar bills to the same bums on her street, while scoffing at her own daughter’s request for designer jeans. Both Abby and Kate are so resolute in their convictions that they fail to see they are essentially two sides of the same superficial coin; one is enhancing her ego through embracing phony sainthood, the other wants to bolster her image by wearing the most expensive jeans around.
It’s refreshing, at least at first, that Holofcener refuses to push anyone’s agenda; every character is a little right and a little wrong—even the good-natured Rebecca is somewhat aloof, guarded and self-pitying—and the audience can choose which flawed narcissist to identify with. However, that ambiguous approach to the material, while admirable, turns problematic as the crises start piling up.
Alex’s joyless, improbable affair with Mary, rather than tying in with the story, is just a weightless diversion, a limp mockery of male arrested development that gets brushed under the rug as carelessly as it is introduced. When Kate attempts volunteering for various unfortunate types, trying to shake off insufferable guilt over her own wealthy complacency, she breaks down crying and quits, lamenting that “it’s too sad.” She’s all mopey talk and no action, and Holofcener seems to be saying that the better decision is to not try, to accept that you’re better off than others and move on. But that’s a sour message to impart to well-off people that do bother to help.
“Please Give” is often hilarious, and it should be commended for tackling nasty social faux-pas, particularly the hypocrisies of self-piety. The performances are excellent, especially from Hall, a pale, willowy wallflower capable of conveying modesty and anger in one doleful glance; her character is the only one that truly blossoms. Steele also impressively shifts gears between genuine insecurity and precocious brattiness, playing a far less angelic child than she portrayed in “Spanglish.”
But the film’s ambivalence about its characters’ cloying attitudes eventually becomes, well, cloying. In the end, “Please Give” is a messy film about rather microscopic issues, and there isn’t really a point, except that everyone of every creed can be a jerk.
Currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Opens nationwide on April 30.
(SEE ALSO: Kevin Bowen’s review)