Saturday, December 11, 2010

SOUL SICK IN THE CITY: a review of "Please Give"

Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
**** (four stars)

This movie nearly slipped under my radar.

This spring when Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, “Please Give” arrived at my local Sundance theater, I was more than aware of its presence and of the sheer talent behind the project as I have been a fan of Holofcener’s work for many years.

Holofcener’s debut film, “Walking and Talking” (1996), focused on a woman (Catherine Keener) dealing with the impending marriage of her best friend (Anne Heche). “Lovely and Amazing” (2001), her superlative second feature (and also starring Keener), dealt with themes of self-esteem and insecurity within a family of a matriarch and her three daughters. “Friends With Money” (2006) starred Jennifer Aniston in a highly (and appropriately) uncomfortable social comedy about a woman who quits her lucrative job only to find herself in increasingly unsteady waters with her collective of rich friends (played by Joan Cusack and again, Keener). All three films are deceptively unassuming as they are meticulously and minutely written, observed, and directed character/relationship/family studies to continuously reveal themselves and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I just didn’t make the time to check out her latest offering. It was my loss indeed because after having finally watched her latest effort I am happy to say that “Please Give” is Holofcener’s best film to date as its characters, relationships and situations are sometimes surprisingly laugh out loud funny, often prickly and painful and always piercingly real.

"Please Give" stars Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as Kate and Alex, a long married couple, parents of Abby, their 15-year-old daughter (Sarah Steele), and who own a trendy mid-century furniture store in New York City. They live in a neighboring apartment next to the cantankerous 91 year old Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is routinely cared for by her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) a kindly, lonely mammogram technician and Mary (Amanda Peet), her cruelly acerbic and perpetually tanned older sister. The characters intertwine as they all navigate the emptiness of their souls and try to discover ways to fill their respective emotional holes. Kate and Alex supply their inventory through the purchasing of furniture from the children of recently deceased parents. To alleviate her own sense of guilt, Kate routinely gives money, food and expensive items, like designer lipstick, away to the homeless, an act that constantly infuriates Abby, as she wants and deserves the same level of attention. Alex drifts into an unexpected affair. Mary continuously battles with her Grandmother and reluctantly assists her sister (when she hasn’t shirked her duties altogether). And Andra bides her remaining time, stewing, complaining, barking, and refusing to exit the world quietly.

Early in the film, Alex and Kate are described as “vultures” and yes, to a degree, “Please Give” is a film about a small collective of people waiting for a 91-year-old woman to die. And especially, for two of those characters, their wait is exclusively for the purpose of obtaining a bigger house and the opportunity to sell off her furniture for their own profit. Yet, as with all of Holofcener’s films, situations and emotions are never that facile. Her writing is as sharp as a knife’s edge and just as equally perceptive about human emotions, foibles, obsessions, frets, shortcomings and fears and throughout it all, Holofcener remains fearless and unblinking. It is more than fitting that she opens her film with a montage of close up shots of women’s breasts being placed upon a small tablet for a mammogram examination and Holofcener shows it all, up close and personal. Breasts of the young, middle aged, elderly, thin, heavy, curvy, misshapen and all in between. It recalled a stunning sequence from "Lovely and Amazing” where Emily Mortimer’s character stands completely naked in front of her boyfriend James LeGros as he picks apart all of Mortimer’s perceived body flaws. This is what Holofcener does best through her filmmaking. She lays everything out on the table and lets the viewer decide what to make of it all.

In “Please Give,” Holofcener’s New York City is a world where all of their characters exist in some form of spiritual crisis and decay where they anesthetize their pain through emotional band-aids like tanning, endless lifestyles of the rich and famous television programs and most notably and crucially, a $235 pair of jeans. All of these details are presented as matter of fact and never in a fashion that could be described as proselytizing. For a film this unassuming in comparison to all of the flashier material in our movie theaters, “Please Give” is deeply passionate and designed to elicit equally passionate responses from audiences. This is easily one of those films where you want to grab the first person you saw while viewing and head to the nearest coffeehouse and talk about it. It is a film meant to bring forth discussion, arguments and artful conversations. “Please Give” is not a passive experience as its characters and situations are too complex to be simply brushed away.

The characters and their relationships parallel each other beautifully. Mary’s harsh relationship with her Andra easily mirrors Abby’s harsh relationship with Kate, for instance. Like Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful “The Kids Are All Right” from earlier this summer, Holofcener is brilliantly and brutally in tune with the nature of family dynamics, the roles in which we inhabit and the ever shifting emotions that come with those roles and dynamics.

Mary and Andra are easily the harshest characters in the film and it would be quite easy to simply paint both of them as villains and walk away. But, Holofcener cares about her characters too much to just let them thoughtlessly twist in the wind. With Mary, Holofcener is asking us to ponder whether she simply a bitch or is her harsh veneer a shield based in past emotional wounds and designed to protect her from future ones.

Andra is a straight talker to a wickedly vicious degree, but is her meanness a reflection of her entire life’s history or her extreme discomfort with facing down her inevitable mortality? A telling sequence occurs in the middle of the film as Rebecca, a new suitor, his Grandmother and Andra take a trip to upstate New York to view the fall leaves in their colorful transition. As three of these characters marvel at this natural wonder, Andra faces in the entirely opposite direction and exclaims, “This is NOTHING!” In a sequence designed for the characters to step outside of their own private pains and take in a moment larger than themselves, Andra wants none of it yet why?

Most compelling, for me, was the character of teenaged Abby as she is character I understood but simultaneously wanted to comfort and slap silly. Is she simply an ungrateful, over-privileged, brat or is she a typical insecure 15-year-old girl, struggling with her acne and weight, and growing angrier and more confused that her Mother turns herself inside out over the plight in the world instead focusing upon her? Or does Abby exhibit both of those characterizes plus more? The film’s concluding moment between Kate and Abby and centered around that aforementioned $235 pair of blue jeans that has been a source of contention throughout the entire film may also cause a sense of debate between viewers as it could be seen as a moment of resolution or the first steps into a darker and more turbulent emotional world between Mother and daughter (I leaned towards the latter) and this is precisely what Holofcener accomplishes so brilliantly, with her clear, clean and complex storytelling.

All of the performances in”Please Give” are first rate. Catherine Keener, to me, is simply one of the most honest actors working today. She goes beyond the ability of never striking a false note or blurs any lines between the craft and act of performance. Keener, always delvers the truth.

Rebecca Hall is an actress that continues to impress me greatly. In films like Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006), Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Ben Affleck’s “The Town” from this fall among others, she has this uncanny ability to completely disappear within a role, embodying it entirely and leaving no trace of it behind when she is seen again in a new film. Her layers are deeply compelling and her seemingly unassuming nature makes her a perfect addition to Holofcener’s cinematic world.

Not long ago, I bemoaned the lack of female writers and directors working steadily in Hollywood today, a lack has only produced a lack of breadth of material for and about women. If I could wave my magic wand, Nicole Holofcener would be making films more frequently and gaining more notoriety as her work is highly entertaining and compelling in equal doses making for cinematic experiences that are memorable. I urge you, dear readers, to…ahem…please give this excellent film a try. Now that it is available at your local video store, there’s no excuse to miss it as I nearly did.

A filmmaker of Nicole Holofcener’s talents deserves to be at the top of the pack and it is up to us to place her there.

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