film review: Please Give

I’ve enjoyed all of Nicole Holofcener’s previous films (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money) but she has outdone herself with Please Give. Her characters are real, richly drawn, and utterly relatable—but Holofcener is generous and tries not to judge them, leaving that—

—to us. With a light comic touch, and without a whiff of pretension, she manages to explore some of the follies and foibles of our time, creating superior entertainment that also holds up a mirror to modern life.

Her leading lady, as always, is Catherine Keener, and there couldn’t be a better Everywoman. Here she’s a middle-class Manhattanite, comfortably married to Oliver Platt, trying her best to raise a teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) who’s going through that awkward stage when every day brings a new crisis that parents just don’t seem to understand. Keener and Platt run a used furniture store, and purchase most of their stock from the estates of the recently deceased. She enjoys the satisfaction of making a good deal but also feels guilty about possibly exploiting people. The couple tries to be friendly, in a neighborly way, to the elderly woman who lives in the apartment next door (Ann Guilbert) but she’s a terribly difficult woman. Her own granddaughters have wildly different feelings toward her: Rebecca Hall is devoted while Amanda Peet can’t wait for her to kick off.

How these people’s lives intersect is the crux of Please Give, a wonderfully observant social comedy with serious undertones. Each character is so well written, and so perfectly played, that we feel both the pain and absurdity of their situations, sometimes at the very same moment. The New York-raised filmmaker also captures nuances of apartment life in Manhattan and a City mindset that any New Yorker will readily recognize.

Perhaps her greatest creation is the miserably unhappy old woman, who is vividly brought to life by Ann Guilbert (whom some of us still remember as Millie from The Dick Van Dyke Show, even though she’s done an awful lot since then). Not since encountering Tony Soprano’s mother (played by Nancy Marchand) in the first seasons of The Sopranos have I seen such a perfect embodiment of misery—or perhaps I should say anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. (I learned the word years ago when I read that Woody Allen originally wanted to use it as the title of Annie Hall.) Yet there isn’t an ounce of exaggeration in the character; I’ve known people just like her. She’s awful and hilarious all at once.

Please Give is the work of a writer-director who earns the highest praise I can give: she’s an original. Please don’t miss this movie.

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February 2024