Please Give, Nicole Holofcener’s (Lovely & Amazing) gem of a new movie, could just have easily been called “Interiors”, were that title not already so famously taken. The comparisons to Woody Allen are tempting, even if they ultimately prove to be merely academic. Like many of Allen’s more notable films, Please Give concerns itself with a certain brand of New Yorkers who go antiquing, judge one another by their reading material, and covet their neighbor’s apartment. Their idea of getting in touch with nature is driving to see the leaves. When they bestow panhandlers with large bills, they are assuaging their own guilt. When Alex (Oliver Platt) refers to Howard Stern simply as “Howard”, he reveals everything about himself that you need to know.
The movie focuses on Alex’s wife, Kate (Catherine Keener). Kate and Alex subsist as urban vultures: When someone dies, they swoop in, buy the deceased’s “junk” from the bereaving (and, in fairness, often indifferent) family, and then sell their haul for a profit. This bone-cleaning serves them well, as they sometimes unload a single piece of furniture for the price they paid for a whole apartment. They know damn well that their 5th Avenue digs are funded by enterprises that are unsavory at best, immoral at worst. Kate feigns remorse to a grieving family member’s face and then, once she is clear, mouths “Wow” at the riches she stands to exploit.
Given the types of clients who frequent her shop, Kate is hardly the most loathsome kind of animal in this jungle. Her patrons fetishize these material goods, and the less they know about where they came from the better. Still, when a rival shopowner buys a piece from Kate and then sells it himself for a considerable markup, she responds partly with the anger of one who was duped and partly with the self-reflection of one who now knows what it feels like. That the movie leaves room for both interpretations speaks to its sophistication. Broadly speaking, Please Give chronicles Kate’s awareness of herself as a predator and her subsequent desire to be something more, to be something better.
More specifically, the movie is about a family that lusts: for cleaner pores, for flesh that does not belong to one’s wife, and yes, in that classic New York kind of way, for more space. Kate, Alex, and their acne-scarred daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) live next to Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) who—why be sensitive when so many in the movie are not?—is on her last legs. Kate and family have dibs on the apartment, which sits none too well with Andra’s granddaughters, the doting Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the self-absorbed Mary (Amanda Peet), and why should it, when, during the course of a conversation about their renovation plans—and in full sight of Andra and the girls—Kate enthusiastically lets slip that they “can’t wait” for the plans to take effect.
As this faux pas suggests, the negotiation between the two families is a tricky one, as Kate et al clearly want to be model neighbors, yet the cloud of suspicion looms over them by virtue of their inability to extract themselves from their own self-interests, a stunt that becomes more problematic the more the two families entwine. The way in which Alex moves from family to family is perhaps predictable; the way in which Abby does so, not so much.
Keener has appeared in every feature that Holofcener has written and directed, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the part was written with Keener in mind. She does not disappoint. Keener is a cerebral actress, and Kate is at her most interesting when you can see her churn. However, Keener’s performance is by no means the only one that stands out. Indeed, I’m not even sure it’s the movie’s best.
I tend to forget how much I like Amanda Peet until I see her in a role such as this. She and Platt seem to be having a blast playing the closest thing that the movie has to villains. Their saving grace is that their recklessness is fueled by a deeper need. They are irrepressible enough that I’ll grant the possibility that this need is somehow redemptive. Steele, too, distinguishes herself in a role that I’m hesitant to call “brave”, if only because acting like you have bad skin doesn’t exactly require the courage it takes to get through real junior high school. Let’s say instead that she clearly communicates all the fear, embarrassment, confusion, self-consciousness, and promise of adolescence.
However, the real revelation here is Rebecca Hall, who somehow manages to dim the radiance she projected in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona in favor of a presence that is introverted but no less alluring. The word “dowdy” came to mind, a term she is no doubt unaccustomed to hearing. Rebecca is the one to whom the alternate title “Interiors” is the most apropos. She mostly lives within herself, yet part of her longs to be sociable, like the frolicsome group of would-be peers outside her grandmother’s window. “What’s so fun outside?” Abby asks her mom. “The world, honey, life”, responds Kate. The exchange could just as well have been with Rebecca, who is so insulated that she struggles to engage in even the most mundane conversation about the weather. Only her grandmother lights her up. The degree to which Rebecca becomes a more active part of the world as her grandmother gets closer to leaving it is a study in subtlety. The movie may close on Kate’s inscrutable face, but I root for Rebecca throughout.
The modest Special Features suit a movie of this size well. There are outtakes, interviews. Holofcener comes across as charmingly neurotic. Apparently the studio chose the title “Please Give”. She seems underwhelmed by it, though even she can’t keep a straight face when she reveals her preferred version, which truly is terrible. The actors fawn appropriately about the director and each other. Really, there isn’t much for them to say. The movie speaks for itself.