The summer movie season has proved a barren wasteland of sequels, remakes, TV adaptations and spectacles based on comic books and video games. Even 14-year-olds have better things to do than squander their allowance on pickings this slim. Which is one reason ticket sales are at their lowest level in years. Hollywood may get its act together in the coming months, but until then, there is the fourth offering from independent filmmaker Nicole Holofcener. It is in every sense a gift.
As I watched Please Give, I experienced a number of curious sensations. At first I was concerned, but then I realized it had just been such a long time since a motion picture made me think and feel and laugh that I’d forgotten what the experience was like.
The writer-director is perhaps best known for 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, and her films are frequently likened to the comedy-dramas Woody Allen made in the ’70s and ’80s. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising to find a measure of the director’s artistic DNA in Holofcener’s body of work, given that she served as an apprentice editor on Hannah and Her Sisters — a movie her stepfather produced — and that she grew up in the same Manhattan milieu where Allen’s seminal output from that period is set.
As she has in all Holofcener’s films, Catherine Keener stars. Here she portrays Kate, a well-to-do Upper West Sider conflicted over her good fortune. She and her husband, Alex — played by a never-droller Oliver Platt — own a thriving vintage furniture store where they sell mid-20th-century pieces purchased from too-busy-to-bother offspring of the recently deceased and marked up to the stratosphere.
Kate feels guilty about that. And about the homeless people on her street, to whom she hands $20 bills as matter-of-factly as other people feed coins into parking meters. She feels guilty, as well, for having bought the apartment adjacent to her family’s and for secretly wishing the 91-year-old sourpuss who lives in it would die already. She feels guilty about everything good in her life. The movie has no shortage of nice touches, but one of the nicest moments catches Kate surfing the web for third-world children’s charities. They’re her version of Internet porn.
One evening Kate and Alex invite their neighbor over for dinner. The old crank (Ann Guilbert) is accompanied by the granddaughters who take turns looking after her. Rebecca Hall is plain and dutiful. Amanda Peet is vain and without a trace of conscience. She’s Kate’s opposite, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by Platt’s character, for whom the liberal guilt thing is beginning to get a little old.
The two families become entwined in unexpected ways that lead alternately to moments of sublime, intelligently observed comedy and to wistful meditations on aging, disease, disability and death. This is a film made with adult viewers in mind — so the bad news is that all those idle 14-year-olds still have no place to go.
The good news is that the rest of us have hit the jackpot. Starved for whip-smart dialogue, characters who don’t behave as though they’ve just stepped out of a cartoon, a plot as filled with surprises as life can be, a cast that honors fine writing and a director who respects her audience? Holofcener’s latest is guaranteed to please. Give it a look.