By Michael Koresky
Dir. Nicole Holofcener, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
Nicole Holofcener’s movies are often praised for their uncomfortable honesty, their ability to burrow to the core of their often exclusively female protagonists’ anxieties, hypocrisies, and shortcomings. And there’s no doubt that as a writer-director she penetrates some nasty deep-seated areas, finding some truths about contemporary urban experience. That she rarely lets any of her characters—whether ostensibly heroes or antagonists—off the hook indicates a cynicism that’s at least grounded and far-sighted, but it also often makes her films feel agenda-driven, narrow, and guarded. Not to mention, in the case of her latest film, Please Give, preciously overdetermined: there’s little room for surprise in a story where the mopey, guilt-stricken protagonist’s profession is to buy furniture from the loved ones of the recently deceased and sell them off at exorbitant amounts in her high-end antique shop.
The literal scavenger in question is Kate, played by ever-ready Holofcener surrogate Catherine Keener, here in downcast (as opposed to super-bitch) mode. Married to her lumpen business associate Alex (go-to grotesque Oliver Platt, again offering more a compendium of puffy sneers than a rounded performance) and saddled with an acne-cursed teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), given to irrational fits of rebellion, Kate goes about her daily business with a constant look of wan regret. It’s unclear if she’s recently begun soul searching, but when Please Give opens, as she’s in the midst of sorting through the belongings of a latest victim, she already appears to be on the verge of cracking. Then again, everyone’s always fragile in Holofcener’s films, whether it’s Emily Mortimer’s self-flagellating wannabe actress in Lovely and Amazing, Frances McDormand’s brittle, rage-fueled fashion designer in Friends with Money, or any of the various women in Please Give, which in addition to glum Kate and insecure Abby, includes Kate’s next-door neighbors, the wrenchingly introverted mammography specialist Rebecca (Rebecca Hall); her superficial, hard-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside beautician sister Mary (Amanda Peet); and their caustic, dying grandmother, Andra (Ann Guilbert), on whom Kate and Alex are waiting to die so they can break through her apartment wall and luxuriously expand their space, much to Rebecca’s chagrin. Everyone is so wretchedly disaffected that the occasional breath of fresh air, such as Rebecca’s mystifyingly sanguine breast cancer patient Mrs. Portman (Lois Smith), comes across more like toxic fumes.
As with many of the director’s distinctly female-driven class exposés, everything is pointed in Please Give, starting with the film’s jazzy opening credit sequence, which shows an endless stream of breasts—desexualized, often veiny and pocketed—being jammed unceremoniously into mammogram machines. It’s an inherently powerful, sit-up-and-notice moment, but it ultimately functions less as a coherent encapsulation of the film’s themes than as an arbitrary, audience-goosing one-off—and perhaps as an unintentional representation of the way in which Holofcener likes to trap her characters like bugs squashed under glass. For despite her seemingly loose narratives, which don’t follow easy-to-discern story arcs, rarely are the people in her films given room to maneuver, interact, or respond to situations in a naturalistic manner. Instead she jumps from one exacting tableau to the next, each meant to zero in on what makes a certain character tick. Rarely do Kate’s, or Rebecca’s, or Mary’s hypocritical behavior or subtly hurtful statements blossom out of recognizable, casual conversation; instead Holofcener turns glaring spotlights on them. Even when her situations are amusing and her actors persuasive, it’s angry, hectoring filmmaking, unsurprisingly appealing to moviegoers who seek out harrowing experiences, especially in their comedies.
It is, however, as a comic writer than the director shows her skill, and her greatest weapon is the cutting one-liner. Unsurprisingly her writing for Keener is for the most part particularly sharp, and one trusts her profound understanding of this character so much that we follow her even through the most preposterous situations because we know we’ll eventually happening upon some stinging truth. For instance, at first Kate’s decision to invite Rebecca, Mary, and Andra over for dinner, knowing full well the inherent awkwardness it will cause, seems a fantasy of New York living (who knows their neighbors, let alone wants to get to know them at the very moment they secretly wish them dead and gone?). But then, it grows clear that the invitation is a symptom of Kate’s profound masochism, her way of dealing with her own eternal guilt over her actions, even thoughts—not far removed from her proclivity to peer at websites of children with cleft palettes during work hours or her attempt to volunteer with young people with Down Syndrome, thwarted by her own tears.
It’s no surprise that Holofcener’s best scenes are those that are most hurting—literally, in one case, when Mary puts poor Abby through the ringer during an intense facial meant to open her pores and eradicate her ever-growing clusters of zits. Mary’s need to inflict pain here shows as twofold, as not only does she agonizingly linger over every squeezed pimple, she also reveals to Abby some damning information about the girl’s father that cuts much deeper. And the aforementioned dinner sequence (the only one in which all of the principal characters come together) is a perfectly contained little aria of angst, the women’s neuroses bouncing off each other with anxious ease and faux politeness. Fascinatingly, Mary’s forthright nastiness (in front of everyone she corrects her sister, modestly discussing her work at the clinic: “But you’re not a doctor”) is appreciated by scarred Abby. Holofcener leaves it open to the viewer to decide whether it’s better to be killed with kindness or honesty.
Clearly, Holofcener subscribes to the latter, at least in terms of her filmmaking. Though so many of her ways of exposing her characters are cliché, or worse, crass: Kate’s attempt to feed a homeless man her leftovers only to discover that he’s simply a bearded black man waiting for a table outside a restaurant is a throwaway liberal-guilt gag right out of Seinfeld. At this and other moments, Kate, and, by extension, Keener, seem like Holofcener’s puppets. Next to her selfish, guilt-plagued creations, Holofcener might be the least charitable of all.