Immoral majority 

People on the edge populate Please Give

Early on in Please Give, a dinner guest tells 15-year-old Abby that—despite the assurances of her parents—the zit on her nose is indeed hideous. "Thank you," says Abby. "No one ever tells the truth anymore."

The guest, Mary (Amanda Peet), is a fake-tanned 30-something beautician who drinks too much, stalks the girlfriend of her ex and resents every second she spends taking care of her cranky 91-year-old grandmother, Andra. Lucky for Mary, it's her younger sister Rebecca who lovingly provides 90 percent of the care-taking, not to mention just about all of the movie's moral high ground.

That leaves plenty of room for moral low ground, and even more room for the always-interesting middle ground. There isn't a single felony committed in Please Give, but there is great enjoyment to be had from witnessing well-to-doers commit moral misdemeanors. For the most part, it's fun to watch and even more fun to judge, especially when the perpetrators don't seem to give a crap about their actions. But this isn't exactly the farce it may sound like—most of the characters here do give a crap about something, some to the point of being saddled with weight-loss-inducing guilt. And even when it's uncomfortable to watch, there tends to be a character waiting in the wings to slap some sense into the situation.

click to enlarge “They’re on backwards.”
  • “They’re on backwards.”

The movie is at its best in that early dinner scene (the only one in which all six main characters appear together), when the two sisters and grandma are in the New York City apartment of Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt). The middle-aged couple and daughter Abby live next door to Andra, and have long ago reached an agreement to buy the elderly woman's condo when she dies. It makes for some wonderfully awkward conversation as the callous older sister sees nothing wrong with asking Kate and Alex about their remodeling plans in front of a still-breathing grandma.

Kate and Alex are used to dealing with death; they run a high-end used furniture store where most of the inventory is purchased on the cheap from the children of the recently deceased. They are very good at what they do, and not always entirely honest about how they do it. Kate eases the guilt of selling over-priced coffee tables by offering money or designer lipstick to every homeless person she passes. She is the eternal worrier—always paranoid that the children she bought from will return in anger, and in near-constant guilt about everyone else. Harnessing those emotions can be a mess—her attempts to land numerous volunteer jobs are cringe-worthy. Keener makes you want to pity and slap her at the same time, playing the role of angst-ridden yuppie with ease.

An unexpected bonus is Ann Guilbert's portrayal of Andra the grandmother. Playing a cranky, stubborn nonagenarian, Guilbert steals every scene in which she appears with a combination of humor, sadness and inevitably. She's the most honest person in this film, and almost everyone hates her for it.

It's not always easy to spot the plot. It's a film about two family units whose lives have momentarily intertwined on the Upper West Side, and the uncomfortable truths that affluence wrought with guilt can elicit. (Whether to buy a pair of $200 jeans is a recurring theme.) In the hands of lesser actors—or even a big-name Hollywood star—Please Give would implode almost immediately into a messy goo of navel-gazing. But give Nicole Holofcener's script to seasoned character actors like Platt and Keener and we're left with a mostly entertaining examination of fairly normal people with varying degrees of complication.

In addition to writing the script, Holofcener directed the film. There are some annoying flaws, including a one-dimensional boyfriend and a physical attraction between two characters that even Judd Apatow would nix as unbelievable. But it's hard to complain too much about the way Holofcener integrates so many stories into such a compact narrative.

Please Give is an hour and a half of reflection on how this band of characters value things—coffee tables, jeans, family members. As you might expect, the resolutions are vague. People compensate for their faults by trying to make others happy, whether it's through money, sex or washing grandma's dirty laundry. And if that sounds too heavy, it's just as easy to focus on the entertainment factor of watching rich people feel bad about themselves.

Please Give continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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