Kate (Catherine Keener) has a lot on her mind. There’s the ethics problem of buying furniture on the cheap at estate sales and marking it up at her trendy Manhattan store. There's the materialism problem of not wanting her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) to want the expensive things that Kate wants. There's the marriage problem of sharing a partnership in parenting, business, and life with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) but sensing doubt nibbling at the foundations. And there’s Kate’s free-floating 21st century malaise—the problem of how to live well and be a good person when poverty, homelessness, and sadness are always right outside the door.

Plus, there’s the neighbours: cranky, elderly Andra (Ann Guilbert) and the two granddaughters who look after her (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet). As Kate, Alex, and Abby interact with the people next door, with each other, and with their New York surroundings, a complex mix of animosity, friendship, deception, guilt, and love plays out with both sharp humor and pathos.

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1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM

3
Manhattan comedy a little lacking in character.

In Please Give, American writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s follow-up to 2001’s Lovely & Amazing and 2006’s Friends With Money, Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play Kate and Oliver, a comfortably well-off Manhattan couple who run a modern furniture showroom. Their specialty is swooping on the apartments of the recently deceased and buying pieces cheaply from next of kin who only see clutter and junk. It is a profitable enterprise and the more their mark-up is – up to a few thousand dollars on a single table, for example – the greater Oliver’s voluble pleasure and the deeper Kate’s dismay.

Thankfully the lining of Holofcener’s film is too intricate to rest on a mere moral distinction. Shot quickly and without great fuss so that it has a lived-in quality, Please Give takes their professional path and uses it to examine their personal lives. Is Kate, played by the actress who is virtually the filmmaker’s screen muse, upset at their line of work, or is that just a manifestation of her deeper unhappiness? And if Oliver can so blithely enjoy the profits of murky commerce, is it as easy to overlook questionable decisions he may make about his marriage?

Friends With Money was very much about the ennui of the well-off – it was into the discrete harm of the bourgeoisie – and it had a schematic feel as it unfolded. Its successor digs around more, getting at the murk within personalities that allows smiles at a dinner party and then sends everyone home to write off their fellow guests. Good and bad aren’t so easily attributed, and often – especially in Kate’s case – a desire to be good turns out badly; every time Kate volunteers at a charity she gets upset at the predicament of the attendees, whereas the requirement is for cheerful positivity.

Money doesn’t corrupt in this world, it divides: Kate and Oliver have already bought the apartment of their elderly neighbour, the tart Andra (Ann Guilbert), and are in effect waiting for her to pass away before they literally knock through the party wall. One of the elderly woman’s granddaughters, Mary (Amanda Peet), thinks it’s a great idea, because it represents the passing of a grandmother she has little time for (despite their similar personalities), while the other, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), is horrified that real estate is presupposing mortality.

The sisters are a tad too neatly divided in terms of character, but their various tics ring true and the various bonds of family allow for some cleanly drawn scenes, most notably the struggle between Kate and her 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele) over the consumer luxuries that a mother thinks her child isn’t ready for and which the child expects since her mother already wields them.

Holofcener focuses on Keener and Hall, but the more interesting performances come from Peet and Platt, two actors who are generally cast with a narrow view and limited goals. The former’s beauty is presented as something brittle and regressive, and there’s a fine line about her brusque selfishness that sits between the blackly funny and deeply sad, while the latter’s bulk is used to conceal his qualms. An affair between their two characters happens not out of desire but curiosity – they can’t muster an argument about why they shouldn’t try sleeping together.

The film is more emotionally incisive than it initially appears to be, but equally it ties together a little too neatly when it already has such a concise running time. Equitable satisfaction comes with nicely judged scenes that are pay-offs, but there was more to these characters, particularly Hall’s stoic optimist, that Holofcener could have unearthed. At a certain point the director has to put aside her preference for an ensemble over a single protagonist. Unlike Kate, she needs to be a selfish parent.

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Details

M
1 hour 31 min
In Cinemas 09 September 2010,
Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11

Genres