Monday, May 3, 2010

Review of Please Give

Here's one of the year's best movies from one of the most overlooked directors out there.

The review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money) is killing me. I want her to make more movies, but her glacial pace—typical gap between efforts: four years—forbids that. I want her to become as big as Kathyrn Bigelow, but creating finely crafted profiles of women and their quiet struggles usually don't find a wide audience. That goes double if these movies have no easy answers.

I'd look the other way if Holofcener directed some female-empowerment mainstream hooey like Mona Lisa Smile or whatever garbage Jennifer Lopez agrees to do next, so she could get some exposure. But over the course of 14 years, Holofcener hasn't done that. It's doubtful she'll start now, especially since that approach has yielded the beautiful and perfectly understated Please Give.

The action centers on two neighboring apartments in New York City, both owned by Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt). The married couple resides in one, which is spacious and luxurious but incomplete because their elderly tenant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), refuses to die. The couple is inconvenienced, but Andra's granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), are in a rougher spot. Andra is the women's surviving family, but she's a bitter handful. It's a family tie that's strangling Rebecca—who heads to the apartment every day after work to help an ungrateful Andra—of any youthful energy. She's a perpetual moping machine. Call it callousness or common sense, but Mary spends as little time with Andra as possible.

Outside their apartment, Kate and Alex make a nice living selling vintage furniture, often buying pieces from the deceased owners' children. This is not an ideal job for those with a shaky conscience, so Kate is driven to repent. She gives money to any homeless person she encounters, which drives her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) nuts. After the landlords host a birthday party for their tenant and her family, Alex and Abby are exposed to Mary. Abby sees the brash and pretty spa employee as a role model who can improve her complexion. Alex, who's a smidge juvenile himself, finds the younger Mary—who looks like her spare time is spent on a treadmill or inside a tanning booth—an attractive option over Kate's kindness and self-flagellation.

Kate isn't a fan of either sister. She finds Rebecca surly, but there's a reason for that: Being charitable is an extraordinary, even poisonous pursuit, which would explain Rebecca's defeated demeanor. Kate can't make that commitment. She gleefully hands out money to hobos, but she's a lot less compassionate with her self-conscious daughter. Hell, Kate is 10 feet away from a virtual shut-in she could lavish with attention. Please Give is full of these human hiccups, and the great joy is how Holofcener strings together life's little aggravations, interactions, and character flaws to create a profound film.

A few examples: Rebecca looks forlornly from her grandmother's window to see a group of contemporaries laughing, drinking beers. Andra on why she never had many friends, thus explaining her life's sorry state: "I was very selective…People were jealous of me—I was smart." While exploring volunteer work at an old-age home, Kate expresses so much concern and pity that she's reminded by the host to stay upbeat; her experience visiting mentally handicapped children ends with uncontrollable sobbing. Mary, looking to maintain a well-manicured upper hand, obliterates Andra's belief that her eyes, feet, and knees will improve: "Things get worse, not better."

It takes good actors to convey every emotional ripple, and Holofcener's cast does, especially Hall and her permanent leading lady Keener. Keener giving a sterling performance is as big a surprise as the sun rising. But Hall (Frost/Nixon, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) shows us something new, muting her graceful features and model-like carriage to portray a woman on the verge of becoming permanently hardened. It's heart-warming watching her remember how to smile.

That qualifies as a big deal in Holofcener's world, but that it hits home shows just how good she is at chronicling the little moments that make up a big part of our lives. Maybe her pokey pace prevents her from being at the forefront of American film, but Holofcener is building a remarkable, enduring body of work about us. Please Give is her defining moment because we recognize so much of it. [R]

No comments: