Inevitably, there will be some people who view Nicole Holofcener's Please Give as yet more neurotic upper-middle-class navel-gazing. Like Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and their cinematic papa Woody Allen, the writer-director focuses on the transactional relationships of affluent friends and families, and their pathological social class anxieties — albeit from a feminine perspective. Not as funny as mid-period Woody, nor as whimsical as Anderson, nor as uncomfortably self-obsessed as Baumbach, Holofcener's films are gentler and, ultimately, more relatable, encouraging audiences to identify with rather than wince at her characters' decisions. She trades misanthropy for humanism and snark for barbed observational humor.
Take Please Give's ending, where Catherine Keener's Kate expresses maternal love by buying her teenage daughter an outrageously expensive pair of jeans. Disapproving critics will view this as a celebration of materially expressed love. For good or ill, however, it is exactly how much of American society articulates affection, by buying gifts. And this gift has particular meaning to an acne-riddled, overweight teenager who is desperate to feel attractive (body image is a recurring theme in Holofcener's movies). Taken in context, it's a surprisingly honest moment that both understands and is uneasy with privilege.
Which is the subtext of the entire film. Keener and Oliver Platt play successful New York antique brokers who purchase contemporary classics from the ignorant children of the newly dead while waiting for their sour 91-year-old neighbor (Ann Gilbert, who played Millie on the The Dick Van Dyke Show) to die so that they can expand into her apartment. Keener fights with her 15-year-old daughter, worries that the old lady's granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) think she's an unethical vulture, and is goaded by guilt into giving money to anyone she perceives as worse off than herself. This menagerie of egocentric Manhattanites cheats, bickers, frets and struggles to connect in a narrative that is as slight as anything Eric Rohmer has put to film.
So, as flawed and high-strung as they are, Holofcener's characters have an inherent decency. Inappropriate behaviors betray their deep insecurities, and self-reproach reveals a yearning to be more generous and trusting. The result is a morally attuned film that probes the struggle for self-awareness (rather than self-absorption) and uses humor to temper its more precious moments. While Holofcener isn't much of a visual stylist — the film's look is flat and nonspecific — she has an engaging wit, evidenced by her wonderful opening credit sequence: a montage of women's breasts flopping onto a mammogram machine to the Roches' song "No Shoes."
Like her past work, Holofcener's morbid but engaging comedy has a dramatically threadbare quality that makes it easy to overlook. But Please Give provides something that has been in short supply at the multiplex lately — a philosophical point of view.
Opens Friday, June 11, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].