Please Give (Sony Classics)
There’s nothing so extraordinary about Please Give, the latest from female-centric filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, and that’s precisely the point. The film is a reflection of real women working through real issues in our real world—really.
Holofcener crafts intensely believable characters in an atmosphere imbued with authenticity, and she does so with delightful ease. Whether her sharply-penned creation provides a means for entertainment or enlightenment, or a reason for its valid scrutiny at all, is another matter entirely.
The film follows two family units that intersect on morally uncomfortable grounds. Middle-aged married couple Kate and Alex (a dependably superb Catherine Keener, and Oliver Platt) await the passing of an elderly neighbor in their building so that they can knock through and expand their own square-footage. Their neighbor, named Andra (Ann Guilbert), is cared for by her two granddaughters: the tepidly jaded Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the decidedly aloof Mary (Amanda Peet).
You’d think this set-up might cause a rift between the neighbors, but it doesn’t (nor does it create much narrative traction). All parties seem attuned to the idea that Andra will soon die, and that Kate and Alex will commandeer her empty roost.
Though Andra is not exactly on the brink of death, she is a damaged, bitter woman whose soul has moved on long ago. Her misery extends into her caretakers, her granddaughters, like a stale musk wafting through an arid room. Rebecca repurposes it into her own scent of gloom, while Mary builds a fake-tan outer shell and ignores the stink.
Meanwhile, Kate and Alex are quite in the habit of repurposing others’ belongings. They own a furniture store, and they acquire new inventory from the possessions of the recently deceased. Kate cautiously stalks through apartments, watched by the bereaved, searching for treasures among trinkets and knick-knacks.
Kate feels like she is living a contradiction: eager to do some good in this world, just as she financially benefits from the death of others. (Alex is unmoved.) Rebecca, also anxious to locate some meaning in life, is smothered by a blanket of pessimism. Her sister Mary floats on a cloud of superficiality, failing to make important human connections. And Kate’s teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) is a victim of that same superficial drive, plagued by pimple flare-ups and improperly-fitting jeans.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are your real women, working through their real issues in our real world. Really! Every word of it is believable—these people could very easily live down the street, give or take an existing apartment complex—but the summation is rather unremarkable: a mélange of middle-class melancholia—the sort of thing we go to the movies to escape. So even if the limber narrative of Please Give contains enough substance to think about, you may not feel so inclined to dwell.
If nothing else, Please Give acts as an insightful examination of what it means to be a woman, a concept so distorted by Hollywood that its redefinition is both crucial and commendable. The film opens by quite literally squashing the notion that a woman’s value is primarily derived from her physical attributes. A protracted montage of breasts being pressed between mammogram plates is both queasying—it quickly clears the air of any sexual anticipation—and also humbling: that this part of the female anatomy, so often exploited for sexual appeal, is just as soon a vessel for disease, for cancer.
It turns out, according to Please Give, that it should be admired as both, as well as everything in between. It’s okay that the world is not a completely moral place, Kate. It’s okay to stop and smell the roses (or, in this case, see the colorful autumn leaves) every now and then, Rebecca. And it’s fine to indulge in a pricey pair of pants once in a while, or slather yourself in bronzer and skin creams; by all means, feel empowered by your body! But Mary, showing love for others (not sex, but love) as your sister does is essential. And Abby, learn from your mother’s big heart; pimples fade, but compassion helps us survive.
According to Please Give, there is (refreshingly) no single ideal that a woman should aspire to (for men, the jury’s still out). It’s about embracing life exactly as it is, from its rottenest to its holiest, from the shallows to the depths. It’s not perfect, and that’s all right. Just try and please give a little along the way.
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener.
Rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity.
Runtime is 1 hour, 30 minutes.