Nicole Holofcener has cornered the market on a cinematic milieu that was once the exclusive province of Woody Allen -- rich, white Manhattanites. Please Give, her fourth film, solidifies her formidable talent.
As with each of Holofcener's movies, this one stars Catherine Keener. Here, she plays Kate, a middle-aged antique dealer who runs the business with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt). Their specialty is buying items from the progeny of the recently deceased, taking advantage of the children's ignorance about the value of the items, and then flipping them in their boutique. While this is certainly legal, and has allowed them to cultivate a spacious Manhattan apartment, Kate is hounded by guilt about her success. She freely distributes cash as well as leftover food to any homeless person she passes, charitable acts that annoy her 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), because mom won't buy her new jeans. Compounding Kate's nagging shame is her desire for her elderly neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to die so that they can buy her apartment and expand their own abode. Kate and her family maintain a friendly, though not close, relationship with Andra, as well as with the mean old woman's two unmarried adult granddaughters -- the selfless, sweet-natured, wallflower Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who cares for the frail 90-year-old, and the assertive, bitchy Mary (Amanda Peet).
The plot of Please Give is fairly minimal. There's infidelity, new love, and business intrigues, to be sure, but what makes Holofcener's work so engaging is her remarkable ability to put numerous three-dimensional characters onscreen, and allow them to behave in ways that are always psychologically driven, rather than dictated by story needs. Kate might be Holofcener's most accomplished creation, a woman so conflicted that she volunteers to work with mentally challenged kids not because she wants to do good, but because she needs to feel bad. She should be despicable in so many ways; however, between Holofcener's deft script and Keener's tenacious ability to get at the truth of a character, Kate becomes not only fascinating but also sympathetic.
Everyone in the cast delivers stellar performances. Rebecca Hall's unforced naturalism matches Keener perfectly; the two share a few tender and awkward moments after Andra dies that are the emotional center of the story. Amanda Peet is unafraid to be unlikable, and Oliver Platt, another actor who always seems like he just stepped into his films from the real world, personifies a self-satisfied New Yorker too comfortable -- both in his life and in his marriage -- for his own good. Even the young Sarah Steele, who looks nothing like the glamorous NY teens of Gossip Girl in this film, makes us empathize with a bratty teenager because, like everyone else in the cast, she can communicate the subtle shifts her character undergoes without making us feel like we're watching a performance.
Please Give offers ample proof that right now Holofcener has her finger on the pulse of the Big Apple in a way that no other filmmaker does, not even her former mentor Woody Allen. She sees how it's become a town ruled by money, and, most impressively, she understands how that affects the personal relationships of all the people who call it home.