Please Give

Nicole Holfcener’s latest film, Please Give, famously opens with a “montage of breasts,” as Andrew O’Hehir of Salon puts it, as Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician gently, if indifferently, goes about her job.  We are presented with all different shapes and sizes of breasts, but as O’Hehir surmises, the scene is clearly meant to be provocative, reading the scene as implying “a spirit of ruthless, uncomfortable, naked examination,” while also speculating that the scene may be answering some of Holofcener’s critics who characterize her films as female-centric.  Although the film is certainly attentive to the nuances of character, presenting us with a comedy of manners that might recall some of Woody Allen’s mid-career films (a perception reinforced by the film’s New York setting), the scene also helps to establish one of the film’s other key preoccupations: the awkward physicality of being human.

The characters in Please Give seem to have two central preoccupations: the bourgeois concerns about New York real estate and antique furniture and the human anxieties about aging and bodies.  Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) are a married couple who own a vintage furniture, often acquiring their stock from grieving children who are shocked that anyone would want to buy their parents’ junk.  We begin to recognize their task as rather morbid, a form of ambulance chasing that gives Kate a great deal of guilt, which she attempts to appease by giving money to the homeless or, later, volunteering for charities.  This preoccupation with aging is made more acute by the fact that Kate and Alex are essentially waiting for the neighbor, Andra, to die so that they can take over her apartment, a task made easier due to the fact that Andra never has a kind word for anyone.  Kate, of course, realizes that they are part of a larger system–that other antiques dealers will step in to the market–and in some ways the issues of money and wealth seem like nothing more than a backdrop for more personal forms of malaise.

In this sense, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the physicality of the characters–a theme that Holofcener also addressed powerfully in Lovely and Amazing.  Here, we have the mammogram scenes, all of which portend the potential for cancer and recall the discomfort of physical examination.  Rebecca’s sister, the drunken and mean-spirited Mary (Amanda Peet) does facials at a spa while wearing a carrot-colore tan obtained at a tanning salon.  Her tanning seems to serve almost as a shield to hide her vulnerabilities.  Meanwhile, she fixates on a neighboring shopkeeper’s body (“she has a huge back”), leaving us to speculate about her fascination with a seemingly superficial characteristic.  Kate and Alex have a daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who is short, a little chubby, and deals with outbreaks of acne.  Initially, she sees Mary’s superficial honesty and focus on bodies to be refreshing and almost admirable.  She’s also convinced that an expensive pair of boutique jeans will make everything better, as all other jeans “look awful.”  Alex seeks out a facial with Mary as a prelude to an affair before disclosing some of his own youthful struggles with acne (Platt’s plumpness also seems crucial here).  Even Rebecca’s relationship with Eugene–she’s tall and gangly, while he is much shorter–accentuates questions about how we inhabit our bodies.  Finally, Kate is unable to face aging or imperfect bodies.  Her reflexive practice of giving large amounts of money–at one point a $20 bill–to homeless people is one expression of this.  But when she volunteers at a nursing home and, later, at a Special Olympics-style program, she fins herself weeping.

All of the characters in the world of Please Give are flawed significantly, and their dysfunctional nature may annoy some moviegoers.  Mary is often brutally mean, asking Kate and Alex to discuss their plans for Andra’s apartment after her death during Andra’s 91st birthday party.  Abby whines and complains, and all of the characters have moments of self-absorption. I’m not quite sure that Please Give ever fully resolves some of the questions it is addressing in a satisfactory way: Holofcener’s solution for Kate’s moral quandary is to turn even further inward, as Mick LaSalle puts it, to embrace a form of “crass commercialism.”  But even where the film seems to frustrate, I think it points to the difficulty of answering some of the questions that Holofcener has raised.

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