Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun May 23, 2010 9:54 am 
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SARAH STEELE AND CATHERINE KEENER IN PLEASE GIVE

Dead people's stuff

Nicole Holofcener is sort of an auteur, and accordingly has a following: she writes and directs her own films in pretty much her own way. She's a witty observer of current American customs and she's good with actors. She gets especially nice performances out of Catherine Keener, who seems too often relegated by other directors to secondary roles in their films but whom she features in all four of hers. These do sometimes have a TV flavor. Holofcener in fact has directed episodes of "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under," and other shows. Like a TV comedy writer, she works in short scenes with moments of pointed dialogue, a specific observation -- a twisted toe, a misshapen breast, a nasty crack. Eventually there's a bit of resolution.

In her last film, the 2006 Friends with Money, Holofcener manipulated a set of women ("Sex and the City" style) with different marital circumstances and levels of wealth.

This time unity of a sort is provided by a New York apartment building where the main people meet. There is just one pretty happily married couple, Alex and Kate (Oliver Platt and Keener), and a very blunt old lady who lives next door, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), whose apartment they have purchased. Alex and Kate have a quarrelsome teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who's not happy with her complexion or her wardrobe. She wants a pair of jeans that costs two hundred dollars.

The old lady has two granddaughters, one of whom is mean and selfish, the other kindlier and shyer.

"Please Give" alludes to panhandlers, but also more widely to Kate's guilt. She is self-conscious about the fact that her business with Alex earns good money and that they are financially secure. She longs to do charitable work, though she runs crying from a center for the mentally handicapped, and her generous handouts to the homeless people on the block only seem to anger Abby. She thinks the money should go toward her expensive jeans. Abby isn't a very high minded or even pleasant young lady, but she's going through a difficult age. So is Andra, who is infirm and in her nineties and probably not going to last long. Andra's older granddaughter Mary (a well-disguised Amanda Peet), an artificially bronzed woman who gives facials at a spa, has no such excuse. Mary is the mean and selfish one. Her more shy and more dutiful sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) does mammograms; would like a boyfriend; but drops by every day to help out her grumpy old grandmother. Guilt, self-centeredness, death, and adultery are going to rear their heads eventually. Whenever Alex or Kate see Rebecca they feel guilty because Rebecca is trying to make Andra's latter days comfortable, but Alex and Kate are just waiting for her to die so they can enlarge their apartment. This is the kind of thing Mary is only too happy to make clear to Andra, as she gets to do when, out of guilt, Kate invites the grandmother and both granddaughters to dinner. This leads to some of the movie's most deliciously uncomfortable dialogue or, if you see it that way, offensive, nasty talk. For Alex what is said doesn't matter much because he is noticing Mary. She's beautiful.

It's ingenious the way Holofcener weaves her themes in and out of scenes; but she also hits the themes too hard. It's a bit obvious how customers in Kate and Alex's Fifties ("Mid-Century") furniture shop suddenly start asking where they get their merchandise. We know the answer, and Alex answers without guilt: they buy them from the children of dead people. But Kate has to go around looking for a charitable organization to donate time to. What she ends up doing, it seems, is giving expensive jeans to Abby. And if Abby's face still has blemishes, it's brightened by her smile. The inevitable happens and Andra dies, resulting in a moment when Rebecca and Mary lie quietly and cuddle. Alex has had a roving eye, but he and Kate are one of Holofcener's happy couples. Much drolly specific and tartly rude dialogue has gone by.

But is that enough? I might tend to agree with Variety's Todd McCarthy, who wrote in a review of Lovely and Amazing, that it was "Engaging, intermittently insightful but too glib to wring full value out of its subject matter." One wishes she would take something a little more seriously, go into a little more depth, scatter around her focus a little less. And if the nasty talk and mean people she chronicles don't really matter, she ought to let them drift free into out-and-out farce; or if they do matter, she ought to give them a harder time. But that is not her way. What she gives us is a keen ear for dialogue, good roles for women, and an even-handed distribution of likable and despicable characters. Please Give made me laugh out loud, especially in the first half. Then the nastiness, first of Abby, then of Andra, finally of Mary, began to add up and the action stopped being fun. Then as dialogue and incidents came to seem too calculated to be convincing, relationships and outcomes became in turn harder and harder to make any ultimate sense of.

This weakness may have developed, oddly enough, out of a greater focus. In the earliest of Holofcener's films that I've seen, her 2001 Lovely and Amazing, there is a collection of intrigues, on the face of them perhaps wildly unconnected, that made it fun to see what was going to happen next. This time there are no surprises, only outcomes that are anticlimactic and sentimental. Cuddling with a bitch sister: somehow that was not what I wanted.

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