Blinded by the city lights
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