This new film from Nicole Holofcener (“Walking and Talking,” “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends With Money”) is her best yet, though still too precious and artificial. Like her previous pictures, “Please Give” is relatively slight and rather sitcomish, and its characters often come across as literary devices fulfilling the requirements of the writer-director’s conception rather than genuine human beings. But it has a wry, understated tone that makes for a moderately amusing outing.
The central characters are Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a married couple who run a shop offering vintage furniture that they buy from the heirs of the recently-deceased, who are usually unaware of its value, and sell at a large profit. Their “preying on the dead” extends to their living accommodations. They’ve bought the adjacent apartment of their elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) with the understanding that after she dies, they’ll take possession, tear out a wall, and expand their place.
The arrangement brings the couple—and their teen daughter Abby (Sarah Steele)—into contact with Andra’s granddaughters Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). They couldn’t be more different. Rebecca is a meek radiology technician who visits Andra daily and is devoted to the nasty old lady. Mary, who gives facials in a nearby spa, is abrasive and forward, and treats Andra with undisguised contempt. She’s also stalking her ex-boyfriend’s new squeeze. And both Alex and Abby are drawn to her—the latter, obsessed with her terrible acne, for treatment, and the former because he’s suffering from a mid-life crisis and looking for an affair. Meanwhile a patient in Rebecca’s clinic (Lois Smith) acts as matchmaker between the radiologist and her nice—but short—nephew (Thomas Ian Nicholas).
From this complicated set-up Holofcener constructs an amiable ensemble dramedy that touches on issues involving ideals of physical beauty (centering on Mary, Alex and Abby) and the guilt of the gentry over their tendency to take advantage of people when they can. That’s clearest in Kate, who makes a point of giving large hand-outs to street people (much to the dismay of Abby, who concentrates on persuading her parents to buy her a new pair of expensive jeans) while agonizing over the death watch on Andra and practicing a trade that literally depends on death and a canny ability to manipulate the grieving.
These are certainly heavy topics, but Holofcener doesn’t delve into them very deeply. She’s content to touch on them lightly, reminding us of their substance while preferring to skate on the surface. “Please Give” is basically about the contracts and understandings people reach among themselves to survive and prosper, not just financially but emotionally, but it does little but suggest the ramifications they may have.
As usual, Holofcener has chosen her cast skillfully. Keener, who’s worked with her before, captures Kate’s ethical crisis nicely, and Hall makes Rebecca’s sweetness credible. Platt and Peet play their less likable characters without turning them into simple villains, and Steele conveys the callowness of youth. But the scene-stealer is certainly Guilbert, who proves that shrewishness only grows with age. Even the walk-ons provide sharp moments. The production makes good use of the Big Apple locations, and Yaron Orbach’s cinematography is especially good at showcasing the old furniture that Kate and Alex specialize in.
“Please Give” is hardly a treasure, but it offers some modest rewards.