On the Aisle
By Tony Macklin
Go East, 50-year-old woman. Go East. Director/writer Nicole Holofcener goes back east for “Please Give.” It is an auspicious move.
Her last two movies were set in Los Angeles. “Friends With Money” was dreadful, even if you identify with vapidity and pretention. Holofcener’s L.A. environment produced dull venality.
Holofcener has made four features, two in L.A. and two in New York City, and she directed episodes of TV’s “Sex and the City.” She may be schizophrenic. She has just bought a home in Venice, Calif., but she was born, raised and schooled in New York City. Once an eastern girl, always an eastern girl.
In “Please Give,” her characters are still self-absorbed, but in their eastern environment, they’re at least slightly grounded. Their self-absorption has a universality that didn’t exist in L.A.’s shrill milieu. In “Please Give” there’s a humanity that was totally absent in “Friends With Money.”
In “Please Give,” Catherine Keener — an intrepid veteran of all four of Holofcener’s films — portrays Kate, a character who is a liberal materialist. Kate’s values collide, but she is not strong enough to resolve her conflict; she can barely cope.
The practical side of her, promoted by her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), buys the furniture of people who have died and left their children with property they don’t value. Kate and Alex then sell the previously undervalued furniture for a profit at their vintage furniture store.
The spiritual side of Kate is a mess. She resists her 15-year-old daughter Abby’s pleas for $200 designer jeans and gives money regularly to homeless people on the street. She tries to do public service, but emotionally she falls apart and can’t function in that world. She wants to have it both ways, but she’s soft-boiled in a hard-boiled world.
Kate, Alex and Abby live in an apartment next door to Andra, a 91-year-old woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert). They have bought the woman’s apartment and are waiting for her to die so they can break down a wall and expand.
Andra has two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hal), who dutifully cares for her grandmother, and Mary (Amanda Peet), who disdains the old woman’s selfish behavior. Rebecca is a mammogram technician, and Mary works at a day spa doing facials.
Holofcener is fortunate in her cast. Keener is convincing as the woman whose emotional life crashes on the shoals of caring. Platt adds humanity as the supportive but wayward husband. Sarah Steele is effective as the pizza-faced daughter who is obsessed with those expensive jeans. Her parents, like most parents, are “do as I say, not as I do.”
Hall and Peet are substantial as the two contrasting granddaughters, and Guilbert excels as the cantankerous, aged woman, who shows that unpleasant self-absorption has no age boundaries.
Holofcener was a production assistant on Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” — her stepfather was a producer for Allen. She studied with Martin Scorsese.
Holofcener opens “Please Give” with a montage of breasts being mammogramed; women’s breasts are squeezed, squished and demythologized. Perhaps this is a bit reminiscent of what Scorsese did to shaving in “The Big Shave.”
Both Allen and Scorsese have a distinctive eastern (New York City) sensibility that Holofcener shares. But they are much more incisive than she is. She basically avoids shtick in “Please Give,” although she can’t resist a moment of broken crockery that is much too coy.
Obviously, like her two fellow New Yorkers, Holofcener mines her own life, acquaintances and friends for personal nuggets. Some, especially in L.A., are fool’s gold.
The culture in which her characters flounder is less shallow in New York. In “Please Give” Holofcener’s characters still whine and moan, but their tone is less vacuous. Holofcener’s decision to not judge her characters lets them off with a slap of self-recrimination.
We understand and perhaps identify with the dilemmas a liberal materialist may face. For some, spiritual or “Christian” capitalism is a contradiction in terms.
But until Holofcener realizes that to be human is to understand and to judge, her films will lack heft and impact.
An earth-shaking choice about designer jeans isn’t quite enough … not in L.A. or New York City.
Showing at Fiesta Square.
Tony Macklin, a former college English and film professor, is still foraging for truth in literature and film, in Arkansas, Las Vegas and beyond.