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Please Give

Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), already established as a kind and long-suffering sort, sits before a man on a blind date.   She offers a frank statement about growing up in New York, accepting the good of such an upbringing, acknowledging the drawbacks.  With the words barely out of her mouth, the stock asshole sitting opposite her pours out his disdain for the city as a place to raise children.   He then proceeds,  printout in hand, to take issue with Rebecca's hair color, rankled at the perceived difference to the color indicated in the profile that he's holding.  She politely points out that there really is no misrepresentation, but he will have none if it. 

That rencontre, early in Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, is reminiscent of  a scene in  her 2001 film, Lovely and Amazing, the one in which the Emily Mortimer character, Elizabeth, asks the man with whom she's sleeping to critique her body, which be proceeds to do with dispassionate thoroughness.  

Both scenes would seem to strike a chord with women who have had to suffer the cold scrutiny of men.      The problem, as Ms. Holofcener proceeds (or regresses), with this, her fourth feature, is the power of any such insight or candor is divested of its power by the complete lack of nuance in the characters and the exchange.   This continues to be a pattern with Holofcener;  she increasingly writes not so much characters as strongly evocative types and sends them crashing into one another.  She  does generally create more fully rounded female characters, although I'm not sure that's the case here. 

Rebecca later mentions her "computer date" to a patient.  The problem is that people don't usually show up on such dates with computer printouts in hand.   The problem is that the male half of the date might as well be a computer himself for human complexity with with he is imbued, which is to say none.    

Faring only slightly better are Please Give's main cast of characters, Kate and Alex, two successful Manhattan antiques dealers, their daughter Abby, neighbor Andra (its her adjacent apartment that the couple own, not-so-secretly covet and will possess when the  cranky old lady finally dies) and her two granddaughters Rebecca and Mary.  The two granddaughters come in contact with the family in seeing after their grandmother, though it is the good Rebecca who does most of the work.   Mary eventually stumbles into an unlikely affair with the older, schlubbish Alex.

Kate and Alex would seem to have a comfortable, if passionless marriage.   The main source of discord on the home front is between Kate and daughter Abby.   The battleground in the age-old dustup between mother and teenage daughter is a $200-plus pair of jeans.   As Abby sees her mother raking in money, dressing in pricey  clothes and liberally dispensing fives and twenties to people on the street, she begins to demand that charity begin, or at least make a stop, at home.   Unfortunately, consumed in her own feelings of insecurity, Kate seems to have forgotten how utterly important are the right pair of jeans to a teenager who's whose got body issues and a complexion in revolt.    

The two sisters, Rebecca and Mary (Amanda Peet) are essentially behavioral opposites and tellingly work in very different areas of beauty and health care.  It's Peet's Mary, despite her preternatural orange permatan, that might be Please Give's most sympathetic would-be character.   As the person assigned the  role of truth teller, she's given virtually no tact, but her general honesty is refreshing in a film that seems unclear as to its own motives.   

Catherine Keener, is as ever, Holofcener's main character, if not her stand-in.  Keener has made a career creating an ever-interesting array of real, complex women, from the vaguely noble to the  borderline psychopathic  (her hilarious turn as the HR woman from hell in Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal).    It's to her credit that she's able to wring something human out of Kate, as Holofcener hasn't given her a three-dimensional person to work with so much as a set of contradictory impulses, which seem to fall generally into a desire to live in monied comfort and the need to be absolved for it.  Her habit of giving money to homeless people seems one aspect of the film's title, but her desire to help seems to extend no further than it takes ease her guilt.

Kate's need to feel better about herself, to address that guilt, blinds her to seeing the potential beneficiaries of her philanthropy as anything more than one-dimensional wretches (the apple of character not falling far from the writerly tree).   Returning from dinner with her wife and husband, she taps an African American man on the shoulder and asks him if he would like the rest of her meal.    A seemingly nice gesture, but the problem is that he's just a guy waiting for a table himself.   Oops, awkward moment.   Apparently, she's been studying at the Woody Allen/Larry David Institute For Racial Awareness; at least when this happens in Curb Your Enthusiasm, we get a laugh at the expense of the clueless white person.

I suppose one can credit Holofcener for having so many of Kate's self-serving attempts at philanthropy blow up in her face.  But it's not pleasant to watch - never more so than when Kate takes a second crack at volunteering but leaves a gymnasium full of children (presumably with Down syndrome) in tears because she finds them all so sad, only to be comforted by one of the kids she found so pathetic - and it's not particularly enlightening.  

The provenance of why we give, be it love or money, is usually much murkier and self-serving that most of us would care to admit.   That, like a variety of interesting ideas and situations, Holofcener sort of throws on screen without fully or honestly examining them.  Her trying penchant to bring forth some prickly topic and then take the easy way out amounts to a failure of writing,  a failure of conviction, or both. 

Mr. Computer Date is not the only cardboard cutout asshole in Please Give.   The film is rich with them.  There's even a motif of creeps calling out other creeps, unaware of the irony of the gesture, whether it's a hostile guy in the store referring to Kate and Alex as "ambulance chasers" for the predatory nature of their work, or a woman in a boutique screaming "LOSER!" at Mary when she realizes Mary has essentially been stalking her, trying to determine what she was "thrown over for" by the man they have in common.  

The irony and hypocrisy of so many pots calling kettles black encompasses even Kate, as she discovers a table in another dealer's store that she sold him.   She's chagrined that he's added a couple of extra thousand to the price, when her markup from the unwitting man who sold it to her was probably significantly more.  Kate later expresses her frustration to Alex with the incident in more broad,  philosophical terms, but it appears the same transparent discomfort with having money, how she came to get it and the fact that the same pattern might be used against her.

Even worse, but all too consistent with the director's ham-fisted approach, displays of people behaving badly are juxtaposed with fairly blissful moments starring the kindly Rebecca.   She gazes out at a majestic swath of upstate leaves in all their varied, changing glory...cut to Alex taking Mary from behind while she looks at a small statue, clearly bored.    Witness one of those unpleasant exchanges of jerk v. jerk and then cut sharply to Rebecca kissing Eugene against some building, a ray of sunlight across them like a benediction, piano notes falling like so many sensitively tossed rose petals.  It's a straight out of film school attempt to telegraph a complexity which is not really there.  

Our young and diminutive friend, Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas), by the way, is another of the writer/director's non-character male characters from these last couple of outings (including the previous Friends With Money).   As a foil to stock asshole, he's stock sensitive guy.   Having invested him with requisite decency, there seems to have been no thought to giving him a brain.   He's given little to say and what little we do hear makes us grateful enough for it.  At one point, during an initial date, he comments on Rebecca's job assisting women with mammograms as something of a male fantasy.   Really?  Most of Holofcener's men would seem to be in need a trip to see the Wizard, whether to pick up a heart, a brain, or a better bank account.   She might well agree, although I suspect we would differ on the culprit.

And it's absolute nadir, Please Give has Kate sitting in her antiques store, talking up the tacky bookcases she has recently bought out of pity from a brother (another Holofcener vet, Kevin Corrigan, from the superior Walking and Talking) and sister out of pity.  While the potential buyers comtemplate the bookcases, Kate looks over to an even more tacky chair from the same lot, remembering an earlier conversation about furniture being haunted.  The brother had told her that the chair was the very one in which his mother died.  A wry smile appears on Kate's face and I thought, "Don't do it." 

But alas, Holofcener did.   In a gesture not even worthy of a good made-for-television movie, the poor old woman's ghostly image appears long enough to be blessed by Kate and then evaporates back to the netherworld.   Lucky, lucky dead woman.  Though let us hope that she's not subjected to anything like the film's uber senstive piano and acoustic guitar score, which deserves to be releated to the purgatorial coffee shop or yoga studio whence it came.

I found myself watching Rebecca Hall, thinking I preferred seeing her when given a more complex character in Woody Allen's Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.   Take a moment to chart Woody Allen's dispiriting representation of women (or humanity for that matter) for the past twenty years or so and consider the irony of that statement.  

Or simply regard a brief scene late in Please Give in which Kate returns a vase to the man from whom she bought furniture at the beginning of the film.   Her ever-mounting guilt has driven her to return what was thought to be a worthless vase that is actually worth hundreds of dollars.   Of course, Kate doesn't return any of the thousands of dollars from the table acquired from the same clueless guy for a song.   The man takes the vase with some incredulity and tells her that she's done something unusual.  Kate walks away, guilt temporarily assuaged.  Then we hear a crash.  What's this?   Before any ambiguity can mount, we immediately  hear an expletive.  He dropped the vase.   And that is irony, Nicole-Holofcener-style.   It crashes. 



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