By Eric D. Snider (reprinted from 1/28/10 -- Sundance Film Festival)
By the looks of things, Nicole Holofcener's muse must be Catherine Keener. The tart-tongued, throaty-voiced actress has appeared in all four of her feature films, Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, and the new Please Give. Keener, one of the most reliably entertaining actresses currently working, specializes in sardonic, flawed characters -- a perfect fit for Holofcener's image of the modern American woman.
Please Give has Keener playing Kate, a New Yorker who owns an antique-furniture shop with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt). Kate is plagued with the guilt of the well-to-do. She'll give $20 to a homeless man but won't give her teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), the money to buy a pair of jeans. She looks for volunteer opportunities in the community, but everything just makes her feel sadder and guiltier.
Adding to Kate's guilt is the way she and Alex stock their store: They buy furniture from the next of kin of recently deceased people. The grieving relatives are usually in a hurry to get rid of Mom's old stuff, and they tend not to know whether it's worth anything. Kate and Alex have taken this line of thinking into their personal lives, too, buying the apartment next to theirs, to take effect upon the death of the current tenant. They hope she will die soon so they can knock down the wall and combine the units. It's every New Yorker's dream.
The not-yet-dead tenant is Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a 91-year-old crank. Her granddaughter, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician, takes care of her, which is the only interesting thing in Rebecca's life. Rebecca's sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), hates the old bat and does little to help, even though the old bat helped raise the sisters. Rebecca and Mary both think it's a little ghoulish how Kate and Alex have pre-bought Grandma's apartment.
This is the basic scenario for a story about imperfect people with self-esteem issues -- which describes everyone on earth, of course -- so it's fun to laugh at these characters and think, "I'm not THAT neurotic, am I?" Abby is concerned about her acne and body type. Mary tans obsessively. Kate and Alex are getting older and flabbier. Rebecca is pretty and kind but makes no effort to date. If these people aren't careful, they'll wind up like Andra, who is ancient and bitter and long ago gave up on finding happiness in the world.
Holofcener uses blunt, caustic characters like Andra, Kate, and Mary to get laughs -- the dinner scene with everyone together is an awkward, hilarious treasure -- but she lets them and everyone else develop into relatable people, too. They are objects of laughter as well as of sympathy, though they don't always deserve the latter.
It could be said that Please Give is simply a retread of Holofcener's other movies, especially Lovely & Amazing -- but, then, most people didn't see those movies, so maybe it doesn't matter. Still, while Please Give is often very funny, it feels a little perfunctory. It's a movie you'll like but probably not love. Don't tell the characters that, though. Their sense of self-worth is fragile enough already.