Please Give
Please Give

Please Give Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Read a how-to book on screenwriting and the first principle you’ll learn is: Your protagonist wants something. How will he get what he wants? I’m guessing that few screenwriters have ever begun the process thinking, “My protagonist has something—how will he share it with others?”

Nicole Holofcener, the writer-director of Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely & Amazing (2001), and Friends With Money (2006), has taken up this very question in her wonderful fourth feature, Please Give. Holofcener’s work is often classified as comedy of manners, but at her best she trades in something much more resonant—the comedy of mores. Here she dives into the fascinating matter of why some people impulsively give and others compulsively take, and how people are taught to second-guess and quash their own generous impulses.

Oddly, nothing I’ve read about the movie seems to pick up on this, even though it’s spelled out in the title. In the Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt dismisses Please Give as a New York story with little appeal for outsiders, while Andrew O’Hehir in Salon and Manohla Dargis in the New York Times both fixate on the filmmaker’s gender. The latter impulse makes some sense, given the movie’s startling title sequence: a series of close-ups in which women’s breasts—large and small, young and old—are plopped on a small plate by a mammogram technician. But what are breasts? We’re so conditioned to think of them sexually we forget their primary function is to give milk.

Holofcener divides her story between two little families, both torn between generosity and selfishness. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a midcentury furniture store that they stock by showing up at the homes of old people who’ve died and cutting deals with their children. Kate is a tenderhearted person who constantly presses money into the hands of homeless people, much to the disgust of her 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who wants her mother to buy her a $200 pair of designer jeans. Meanwhile, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall)—the mammogram technician—and her older sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), take turns looking in on their maternal grandmother, Andra (Ann Guilbert), a sour and relentlessly negative woman who raised them after their mother committed suicide. Rebecca still tries to sympathize with the old lady, but Mary has long ago written her off.

These two families are connected by a hilariously uncomfortable circumstance that’s peculiar to the world of Manhattan real estate but also reflects the movie’s philosophical concerns. Kate and Alex own an apartment in the Murray Hill section of Midtown, and like most New Yorkers, they wouldn’t mind a little more space. To that end, they’ve bought Andra’s apartment next door, but they won’t take possession until the old woman dies. An early scene shows Kate and Rebecca—the two kindest characters—making excruciating small talk in the elevator, which moves Kate to invite the sisters and their grandmother over for dinner to celebrate Andra’s 91st birthday. Mary, who never misses a chance to goad her grandmother, asks the couple to preview their construction plans, and Kate is forced to map out what they want to do with Andra’s home after she dies. Hoping to defuse the tense moment, Alex asks, “How’s that cake, Andra?” In the movie’s funniest line, she carps: “Dry.”

Kate is the most generous and by far the most interesting character (she’s played by Holofcener’s favorite actress, Keener). A classic bleeding-heart liberal, she gives so much and so often that she’s become an annoyance to her husband and daughter. “Your guilt is warping me,” Alex remarks in one scene, after Kate worries about having overpriced a pair of bookshelves. This is a common tactic of the less-than-generous: confronted with exceptional generosity, they impugn the giver’s motives. Abby is particularly put out when her mother hands money to street people; in one scene, when Kate sees a particularly miserable specimen and tries to give him a $20 bill, Abby exclaims, “No way!” and snatches the bill out of her hand.

Holofcener understands how hard it can be to give, and she doesn’t make it easy on Kate, subjecting her to all manner of comic punishment. Walking home from a restaurant with her family, Kate offers her boxed leftovers to a shabbily dressed man on the street, and he icily replies, “I’m waiting for a table.” After buying an ugly vase for next to nothing, she discovers that it’s worth $700 and trucks out to the suburbs to return it; the seller is floored by her honesty, but as she’s walking away she hears him accidentally dropping and breaking the thing. For the birthday party, Kate buys Andra an expensive box of beauty products, which the angry old woman secretly stuffs down the hallway garbage chute. (Kate sees it later in the building superintendent’s apartment.) The most extravagant gestures invite the most humiliating results: Abby tells Rebecca her mother once invited a homeless woman into their apartment to bathe; the woman rewarded them by crapping on their floor.

The most intriguing scenes are those that suggest Kate’s sensitivity may actually compromise her ability to do good. Hoping to give of her time as well as her money, Kate volunteers at a retirement home. The woman showing her around urges her to keep her conversation cheerful, because many of the residents are preoccupied with their imminent deaths; Kate can’t wrap her head around this, mostly because she’s preoccupied with the idea as well. Later she offers to work with children who have Down syndrome, but as soon as she’s exposed to them she starts crying. “What are you doing?” the supervisor demands. “It’s just so sad,” Kate replies. “You should go,” the supervisor tells her, with some irritation. For the first time you realize that Kate’s generosity might spring from weakness instead of strength, that she may be taking more from the situation than she’s giving.

She still comes off better than Mary, her opposite in every respect and her rival for the affections of her husband and daughter. Young, pretty, and tan from her frequent salon sessions, Mary is the sort of person whose harsh judgments of others guarantee her a social edge. She’s no sucker: at the birthday dinner she remarks that she hates to hold a door open for someone without being thanked, or even worse, have the next person pass through as if she were a “fucking doorman.” This kind of talk captivates Abby, who’s at the age when heartlessness passes for truthfulness. When Andra finally expires in front of the TV, Mary tells Rebecca, “She was mean. Why do you think mom took 85 Valium, because her mother was loving and kind?” She’s right of course, but that doesn’t make Mary any less mean herself—she’s just another Andra waiting to happen.

The most revealing moment in Please Give occurs at Andra’s funeral service, and Holofcener lets it slip by with so little emphasis that for a while I didn’t see it for what it was. The minister delivering the eulogy announces that when Andra was younger, she read to the blind and took part in other charitable activities. This shocks Mary, who turns to Rebecca and mouths the words, “She did?” Rebecca confirms it with a nod, and the fact that she knows this and Mary doesn’t says plenty about their relative interest in others. Once upon a time Andra was capable of giving, but somehow, over the years, generosity was ground out of her. This is a movie that asks us not just to give but to give till it hurts—because the alternative may ultimately hurt more.