White guilt is so out-of-fashion that Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give invokes charity instead. It takes on the obscure subject of self-aware people who cannot rise above their class advantages yet are, in fact, weakened by them. Kate (Catherine Keener) feels compelled to give money to homeless people loitering outside her Village condominium. She runs a Manhattan antiques shop with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), and plans to expand their apartment into the space occupied by an elderly, near-death neighbor (Ann Guilbert). The neighbor’s physical frailty—and her very nearness—unnerves Kate, much as it exasperates the old lady’s granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). All these unfulfilled women’s interactions—cautious, fractious, embarrassment-prone—reveal a common apprehension. It has much to do with being female, privileged, white.
Those are not necessarily Holofcener’s themes, but she makes these facts plain. This puts Holofcener in a different sphere from so many New York-centric filmmakers who simply take status for granted (recalling Jordan Baker’s line in The Great Gatsby: “We’re all white here”). With each character, Holofcener’s honest, gentle humor goes just below the skin of their armor-like privilege. There’s a priceless moment when Kate insults a man standing outside a restaurant by handing him money. “He looked homeless,” she explains. Her husband clarifies: “He looked like a black man waiting for a table.” Holofcener uncannily combines racism and classism and sympathy. Even the least likable character, Mary, who snaps at her elder, upbraids her sister and condescends to everyone, embodies a recognizable pathos. Mary is one of those white bourgies who cannot appreciate her own tall, glamorous favor. She epitomizes the weakness of privilege (and, so, tans a lot).
Please Give is so full of feeling it advances past TV’s Seinfeld, which mainstream media labeled “about nothing” rather than accept its satirical mirror image. The accuracy of Holofcener’s mirror also distinguishes Please Give from the loathsome class comedy Greenberg. None of Holofcener’s characters push their intelligence, attitude or circumstance against another; they’re all equally sad, equally human—and so are not repellant. Holofcener shows a generosity of spirit, unlike Noah Baumbach’s arrogance. Please Give is specific about its middle-class, white, Manhattan characters but it’s also universal in the way one social class’ anxieties are understood rather than simply celebrated. The essence of Greenberg was about in-group narcissism but Holofcener reveals an unease that is widespread and relatable.
Please Give brings back a song by The Roches (“No Shoes”) that typifies how poignantly arranged voices—harmonies—can be used to tease the self-defenses of modern sophisticates. It is a jovial, more grown-up approach than Andrew Bujalski’s recent mumblecore flick Beeswax (a story about two actual sisters that never got beyond itself). For Holofcener, all the characters are sisters; they stumble and deceive and desire in familiar terms of anguish, remorse and confused love.
Holofcener parallels their conflicts starting with a montage of breast exams at the clinic where Rebecca works. Only a true indie filmmaker would attempt this boldly naked leveling—it’s a funny and unsettling jest showing what makes us both eccentric and the same. That’s also Holofcener’s method when the insult “She’s a bitch” applies to Mary as well as the grandmother. Of course, nobody plays a bitch better than Catherine Keener, yet Kate is the most conciliatory role Keener’s ever had. Once again enacting Holofcener’s alter ego, Keener shows the layers of conflict beneath what others might consider bitchiness. Kate’s a rare New York movie character who cannot dismiss her good fortune and so relents to charity as a way of satisfying her private shame. This is pinpointed when Kate volunteers to work with handicapped children. A social worker advises, “We try to be as upbeat and positive as we can.” Only Keener could make the impossibility so poignant.
Please Give may be Holofcener’s best movie. Its funny/sad harmonies are such a good achievement that she obviously had to make the mess of Friends With Money—with its confused contrasts of luxury and stress—to arrive at this clarity. Too bad she had to sacrifice the film’s style; the photography by Yaron Orbach doesn’t appreciate the delicacy of sunlight that should be a real quality in a film so nuanced about New York apartment life. The film’s subject demands a warmer visual tone, yet Orbach’s crude lighting seems to object to the characters’ very flesh—from tits to zits. Given Holofcener’s insights about womanhood, she needn’t shy away from being visually flattering. Her only misstep is an aural joke when Kate returns a seller’s family heirloom—it recalls one of the most devastating moments in Altman’s Short Cuts yet uses Altman’s rich cynicism cynically. If it was an attempt to avoid sentimentality as tantamount to guilt, Holofcener shouldn’t worry; her view of the white condition is far more humane than Woody Allen’s or Noah Baumbach’s.
Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Runtime: 90 min.
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