Blinded by the city lights

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Robert Nott

New York City: you ei­ther love it or hate it, and your at­ti­tude about the place may well de­pend upon how you feel about your­self. That’s one of the main themes run­ning through Ni­cole Holofcener’s ex­tremely lik­able Please Give. The ti­tle is a sly com­men­tary on how some peo­ple can eas­ily of­fer up money in lieu of love as a way to prove that they care, but it’s also a sad fact that many of the char­ac­ters just don’t know how to give a piece of their heart. Which is un­for­tu­nate, be­cause so many of them need those pieces to com­plete that puz­zle.

Set in Man­hat­tan, Please Give hints at a Woody Allen-like med­i­ta­tion on the comic tri­als and tribu­la­tions of those nutty folks known as New York­ers (don’t take of­fense — I’m a na­tive of those parts my­self). But Holofcener doesn’t hand­i­cap her story with anx­i­ety-rid­den peo­ple who spout clever one-lin­ers and al­ways know the right thing to say. It’s what’s not said that makes this movie so sweetly and sadly en­dear­ing.

The film isn’t fu­eled by plot but by peo­ple. It cov­ers a few days in the lives of sev­eral char­ac­ters.

Alex (Oliver Platt) and Kate (Cather­ine Keener) run a “vin­tage con­tem­po­rary” fur­ni­ture store on 10th Av­enue, sort of a De­sign Ware­house for an­tiques. This stuff is so ex­pen­sive that price tags aren’t even used. “Where do you get this stuff?” one in­quis­i­tive cus­tomer af­ter an­other asks the cou­ple. Kate is re­luc­tant to tell the truth, but Alex takes mer­ce­nary de­light in his re­sponse: “We buy from the chil­dren of dead peo­ple! It’s nice!”

Kate, who feels guilty about tak­ing ad­van­tage of griev­ing relatives, fun­nels her en­ergy, time, and money into so­cial causes and home­less peo­ple. She wants to save the world, but she can’t even save her mar­riage. Alex’s eyes be­tray the truth: he left her — emo­tion­ally, that is — long be­fore this story be­gins, but maybe she aban­doned him first by fo­cus­ing her at­ten­tion on down-and-out strangers. The two have an ado­les­cent daugh­ter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who yearns to be loved and can’t seem to ex­press her feel­ings in a way that gets a re­sponse from any­one.

The apart­ment next door to these three is oc­cu­pied by 91-year-old Andra (played by the won­der­ful Ann Mor­gan Guil­bert). She’s a dou­ble ter­ror: spunky and cranky. Alex and Kate want her to die. They’ve al­ready bought her apart­ment in an­tic­i­pa­tion of her death, so while they put up a cheer­ful front of be­ing good neigh­bors, it’s still dif­fi­cult for them to con­tain their en­thu­si­asm for ex­pan­sion into Andra’s place once she dies.

Andra has two grand­daugh­ters: Re­becca (Re­becca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Re­becca works with “boobs” all day long — well, that’s how she puts it, since she ad­min­is­ters mam­mo­grams. Mary gives fa­cials at a spa. Nei­ther seems real happy with her job or her place in life, but at least there’s the hope of ro­mance for Re­becca when she meets a nice guy who brings his grand­mother to the clinic. Re­becca does her best to care for Andra, but Mary would just as soon see the old bird dead. And ev­ery time Andra closes her eyes, you won­der if she’s ever go­ing to open them again.

Holofcener — who wrote and di­rected — keeps her cam­era fo­cused on these six main char­ac­ters as they con­tend with their own mor­tal­ity and with be­trayal, for­give­ness, poop scoops, home­less trans­ves­tites, cable tele­vi­sion pro­grams, and mi­crowaves. The ac­tors are a plea­sure to watch as they to­tally in­habit their roles, par­tic­u­larly Guil­bert and Steele — one play­ing a woman fac­ing the end of her life, the other anx­ious to start hers.

The script is a model of ef­fec­tive econ­omy, laced with Beck­ett-like pauses and words that mean any­thing but what they’re sup­posed to mean. The mu­sic is by Marcelo Zar­vos ( Sin

Nom­bre), and the score al­ter­nates be­tween hope­ful strains that sug­gest ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be all right and mourn­ful suites that con­firm that even as things sort them­selves out, peo­ple are go­ing to get hurt. The last shot, of var­i­ous fa­cial re­ac­tions to the pur­chase of a pair of jeans, beau­ti­fully cap­tures the no­tion that none of these char­ac­ters’ lives are empty. It’s just that all these folks are so eas­ily blinded by the need to make it work in New York that they can’t see who and what fills ’ em up.

Yetta again: Ann Mor­gan Guil­bert, left, and Sarah Steele

Death be­comes them: Cather­ine Keener and Oliver Platt

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