Sunday, November 14, 2010

Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010) -- B+

The Upper East Side protagonists of Nicole Holofcener's Please Give transcend easy categorization, placement, and contrast, a welcome bit of self-reflexivity and critical insight that's missing from nearly any of its cynical, solipsistic Indie counterparts. Pondering privileged white guilt with pointed social humor and progressively fleshed out characters, it is the independent American comedy of the year, dispersing pathos with economical precision and ending ironically rather than in affirmation of its own self-worth. Where Greenberg stumbles over its own intelligence and The Kids Are All Right plays like a didactic moral lesson (even summarizing itself in the title!), Please Give successfully wades into the lives of materialistic intellectuals and, while not quite piercing their souls the way a Whit Stillman is able to, Holofcener's simultaneously playful and probing reverence for human dilemma ultimately resonates with an impressive level of honesty and good faith.

The characters and scenario are admittedly contrived: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammogram technician (sexuality is dangerous, mechanical), is lonely, but looking for love. Her office mates ask: "Don't you want to go see the leaves with us? They change colors!" She doesn't understand the enthusiasm for something so seemingly trivial. She lives with bitchy, tan sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a spa technician (she can only see skin deep) close to their near-death grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Turns out, the next door neighbors Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) have just purchased Andra's apartment and intend to extend their own...once she dies. They own a furniture store, peddling unique items...that they buy from the relatives of recently deceased loved ones. They buy cheap, jack up the prices, inflating the profit margins. Their daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), insecure because of her acne, covets a pair of $200 jeans, but Kate refuses. "You buy $200 jeans, mom," pouts Abby. Kate responds, "but that's because I'm an adult." Meanwhile, she has no problem dropping $20's in the jars of homeless, at one point even mistaking a black man waiting for a table as a panhandler.

The scenario and character contrivances, though, become gradually drowned out by both the incredibly human and intricate performances of every cast member mentioned above and Holofcener's refusal to merely perform a series of ironic exchanges and incidents. Certainly they are present, but Holofcener deftly eradicates a simplistic aligning through her devotion to each character's emotional considerations. Central to that is, of course, Keener's character, so guilt ridden by her financial status that she can't sleep at night. Holofcener plays this as absurdist narcissism, yet in no way is out to merely condemn either. She is not affirming or condemning, but probing through the character's crisis of self-worth. She wants to volunteer with old people and handicapped children, but is too saddened by their state to go through with it. In no way is Holofcener affirming this stance, clearly evident because of the real volunteers, who recognize her conflicted state as symptomatic of her class status, a rich white woman with nothing better to do than feel sorry for others. Holofcener never has a character speak these words explicitly, but allows the scenario to suggest it, much like how every character's problem is self-inflicted, with the exception of Rebecca, though one could argue the responsibility to her grandmother is used as a crutch to explain away her inactive social life.

Ultimately, the materialism and ageism of the culture (facials, expensive shampoos, hip furniture, designer jeans) is met with neither affirmation or condemnation, but a lack of judgment, a scripting decision that proves wise because it forgoes any kind of summarization. Yet, Holofcener is not ambivalent about her characters' either, since scene after scene lovingly criticizes their privileged way of life. Even the closing scene, as Kate and Alex finally agree to buy Abby the jeans, denies a happy, definitive ending, even though Abby grins from ear to ear. The materialistic lineage is not broken and in a society that prizes brand names and superficiality, it becomes a necessity for adolescent egos. Holofcener is not celebrating this idea, yet neither is she condemning it. She's slyly suggesting that something deeper is taking place, especially for Kate, who's rumination over her inability to help others does not end in epiphany nor elation, but contented dejection, almost indifference, so that the buying of the jeans only problematizes her state, even if it provides (momentary) comfort to her daughter. By examining the behaviors and neuroses of a social class rather than merely indulging them, Holofcener finds depth and meaning, perhaps even in an universal sense, through an examination of a very minute percent of the American population. That's something of a feat, yet she's helped immensely by over a half dozen virtuoso, restrained performances.

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