Monday, May 17, 2010
Writer/director Nicole Holofcener grew up on Woody Allen’s sets (her stepfather was his producer), and her movies have a lot in common with his – not the comedies or the deep-dish ones, but the ones, like Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors, that draw a detailed topographic map of their characters’ internal landscapes. Like Woody’s movies, Holofcener’s have a strong autobiographical streak, so her main characters are always women, but her male characters are as strong as his female ones.
Ever since her first feature, 1996’s Walking and Talking, dissected a pair of best friends who were pushing 30, Holofcener, now 50, has chronicled the internal lives of people like herself and her friends. With her latest, Please Give, she enters the sandwich generation, splitting her time pretty equally between a middle-aged couple, Kate (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) and the twenty-something sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet) who care for the couple’s 91-year-old neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Millie Helper).
Most movies with multigenerational casts favor one generation over the others, but Holofcener trains the same loving but clear eye on everybody. Her creations are alternately unreasonable, ridiculous, and deeply surprisingly sympathetic.
There are a few moments when this comedy of bad manners touches on something approaching profundity, like when Kate, who sells mid-century modern furniture she buys from the children of people who have died, talks to another woman about how used furniture is haunted by the ghosts of its previous owners. Holofcener also has something to say about how one person’s loss is often another person’s gain – particularly, though by no means only, in Kate and Alex’s business, where things they bought cheap from clueless heirs sell for thousands of dollars.
But for the most part, Please Give sticks to what Grace Paley called the little disturbances of man. Things like Abby’s mortification over the pimple that is “eating my face,” Kate’s unshakeable liberal guilt and her sometimes comic attempts to appease it, and Alex’s determination not to let his self-flagellating wife “wreck my fun.” Holofcener is also a connoisseur of poignant moments, like the tenderness with which Kate and Alex peer around a corner at Abby when they come upon her in the drugstore.
It’s not as if nothing big happens in Please Give. People have affairs, fall in love, even die. But those things, which would be the focus of a more conventional narrative, are just part of the warp and weft of this story, which is more interested in what people say and leave unsaid, and how they help and hurt one another.
It’s easy for this kind of movie to go more wide than deep and wind up feeling shallow. That happened to Holofcener’s last feature, Friends with Money, but Please Give sidesteps that pothole. A lot of the credit for that goes to the universally excellent cast.
Keener, who has starred in all four of Holofcener’s feature films, told the LA Times that “all the great actresses want to work with her.” Several got their chance in this film. Keener keeps us close to Kate even at her worst, letting us see what could have read as self-indulgence or neurosis as the suffering of a painfully sensitive soul. Mary is so tightly defended she comes off as selfish and mean, but Peete gets at deeper truths with her measured stare, her snarling smile, and the awkward clumsiness with which she finally lowers her head onto her sister’s shoulder. Hall has an even bigger challenge in the quiet, self-effacing Rebecca, whose repressed emotions only just peek out from her soulful eyes or work the corners of her generous mouth, so it’s a great relief to see her finally let loose, grinning at her new boyfriend or crying in Kate’s arms. Guilbert earns a little sympathy for the brusque, tactless Andra when she dips her head or hardens her jaw, making clear the loneliness and vulnerability Andra’s working so hard to hide. Sarah Steele is funny and furious as Kate and Alex’s teenage daughter, Abby, a bundle of raging, pimple-ravaged hormones. And distinctive but underused actresses keep popping up onscreen in small roles. Amy Wright and Elizabeth Berridge are memorable as adult children Kate buys furniture from, and Lois Smith is luminescent as a big-hearted patient of Rebecca’s (she administers mammograms).
Intimately intertwined and perfectly life-sized, the people in Please Give are often filmed in bed, but they’re hardly ever making love. Instead, they’re lying on their sides, sitting by the remote control, or sprawled on their bellies and doing what they – and we – do most: talking to each other. Watching this film is like eavesdropping on a family you never knew you had.