Writer-director Nicole Holofcener seems to get better with every film, and now she’s cruising along the well-trodden path of neurotic New Yorker comedy-drama with grace and comely confidence.
Catherine Keener and a cast of excellent women star in Nicole Holofcener’s newest low-key emotional rollercoaster, where a family awaits the death of an elderly woman whose apartment they want to expand into.
It should be pointed out that Holofcener’s previous, more strenuous efforts, Friends with Money and Lovely & Amazing, were set very specifically in Los Angeles. It should also be pointed out that Please Give’s view of New York is not the most inviting. But in a way that’s also the beauty of it—the understanding that self-absorption knows no geographical boundaries, and so unites us all.
At the center of this nonchalant morality tale is an urban family waiting anxiously for the tenant next door, an old woman, to die so that they can expand into her apartment. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play the proprietors of a furniture shop whose wares—also typically acquired from families of the recently deceased—vary widely in value, because value itself is relative.
To get at that apartment next door, the couple first must feign some kind of neighborliness with the unambiguously dour old lady (Ann Guilbert) who lives there—which means making the acquaintance of her two adult granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall), whom the old woman brought up after their mother committed suicide. The two sisters differ significantly in disposition, but they each have a special stake in what develops, as does Keener and Platt’s daughter (Sarah Steele), who meanwhile has been enduring an especially awkward adolescent moment.
Unfurling as a series of loose vignettes, the film might seem too breezy under anyone else’s command, but Holofcener battens the proceedings with perceptive specificity. Here, plot matters less than empathy for blessed yet restless lives and compassionate wisdom about how even the best intentions can get messy. It’s a small miracle—of casting, of actorly intuition and directorial discretion—that these figures become more endearing even as they become less likable. As their lives get more entangled, we see their gestures of generosity beget humiliation, their pangs of conscience succumb to selfishness. We see our loved ones and ourselves. (Having once meanly quipped that the way to remember Holofcener’s name is to think, “hollow center,” I now acknowledge that the joke—that all-too-familiar ache of emptiness in the middle—is on me.)
Holofcener has a knack for the sort of life slice that can stay with you for days only then to abruptly vanish into the slipstream of emotional memory. The net effect leaves you wondering if what you’ve seen was insubstantial or utterly essential. But in retrospect that seems like exactly the right way to make a film whose business is to ask just what it now means to give of oneself, and to take.