Friday, April 30, 2010

A New York Estate of Mind

Walking and talking: Teenager Abby (Sarah Steele) and her mother, Kate (Catherine Keener).

Please Give
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener
Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Ann Guilbert, and Sarah Steele

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

As I have a bit of a skin problem myself at the moment, I can sympathize with Abby (Sarah Steele), the 15-year-old character in Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Please Give. Abby is dealing not only with a mother melting down from liberal guilt, but, worse, with acne (“Oh, that’s bad,” says another character, who gives facials, “it looks cystic”)—which is both on her face and in ours. Can’t she cover it up a little? I couldn’t help wondering. But such is the way of Holofcener, whose movies (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money) are much more like real life than most of what you’ll see on the big screen. (Her one “lapse” may have been the use of the glamorous Jennifer Aniston in Friends with Money, except that Aniston fared much better in that movie and in Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl than she has in more air-brushed, so to speak, films.) During Friends with Money, when Holofcener’s muse Catherine Keener, as half of a screenwriter couple, berates her husband for not properly sympathizing when she gets hurt, my own husband whispered to me, “Sounds like arguments we’ve had.” Indeed.

In the director’s new film, Keener plays Kate, a woman uncomfortable with her own upper-middle-class comfort, which is, oddly, enhanced by the dead and almost dead: She buys furniture from the estates of the newly deceased for her upscale antique store, and she and her husband, Alex (the “real”-looking Oliver Platt), have already bought the apartment next door from the elderly woman, Andra (Ann Guilbert, once a neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show), who lives in it; when she dies, they’ll be able to smash right through and have an even bigger place in their stately East Village building.

Andra’s granddaughters—Mary (Amanda Peet), who is almost unbelievably blunt (see acne remark above), and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the sweet to Mary’s sour, who does most of the caretaking for their grandmother (also sour)—only serve to exacerbate Kate’s guilt about Andra, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Yet they affect Kate’s family—Abby and Alex—in ways that Kate cannot. Somewhat distracted by her desire to make the world a better place, Kate tries to volunteer for work with both the very old and children with Down syndrome but finds herself overcome by their situations (in a reversal, one of the children attempts to help Kate when she ends up a blubbering heap in a restroom stall). Instead, Kate hands out money and leftovers indiscriminately to anyone who even appears to be homeless.

This is kind of Wallace Shawn Lite, yet Kate truly is struggling and she truly does love her family. (In an unusual and touching development, Abby and Alex indirectly share a secret they keep from Kate, demonstrating the sometimes delicate interweaving of family dynamics.)

Holofcener does not concern herself too much with plot. In her movies a person can have an affair without any eventual explosions or can suffer a depression that shows itself, rather than in hitting the bottle, in not hitting the shampoo. This can make her work seem more natural than contrived—a more leisurely and less intellectual Woody Allen, whom Holofcener once worked for.

In the character-driven Please Give, there is only one off note that I can perceive (well, apart from nearly every New Yorker going bonkers over getting to the country to watch the fall leaves “peak”): Those two young women never give a hint of being resentful at not inheriting their grandmother’s great apartment. Really?