Nicole Holofcener’s Directs Catherine Keener in a Story of Misplaced Guilt and Missing Compassion
#50: PLEASE GIVE (2010)
DIRECTOR: NICOLE HOLOFCENER
Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are married New Yorkers who make a comfortable living selling mid-century furniture. They buy mostly from the adult children of the recently deceased, and they often sell the furniture at a tidy markup. It stings when someone browsing in the store calls Kate and Alex “ambulance chasers” – or at least it stings Kate. Alex is cheerfully at peace with what they do. But is this business model actually wrong? Is it wrong to sell a piece of furniture for two or three times what they paid for it? It’s certainly not illegal, but Kate is feeling increasingly uncomfortable with it.
Then again, Kate feels uncomfortable much of the time. She feels her good fortune like a weight and tries to lift it by doing good. She presses cash on homeless people (and occasionally, embarrassingly, on those who just look homeless to her), she tries to volunteer with the elderly and with developmentally disabled adults. But she fails as a volunteer because it’s not compassion that drives her, but pity and a need to prove that she is a good person. She can’t stop being sad around the elderly; she bursts into tears when she’s with the developmentally disabled. She’s so conditioned to feel sorry for “the less fortunate” that she can’t interact with them in an authentic way.
I get it, Kate. I really do. I, too, have been a failed volunteer. I, too, have confused doing what’s right with doing what makes me feel better about myself. Liberal white guilt is a bit of a cliché, but it does exist, and in Please Give Kate experiences it to an almost crippling degree.
Kate fails as a volunteer because it’s not compassion that drives her, but pity and a need to prove that she is a good person. She can’t stop being sad around the elderly; she bursts into tears when she’s with the developmentally disabled.
Not so her husband, Alex. Alex is likeable, gregarious, and self-satisfied. Their 15 year old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) is too caught up in her neediness to worry about anyone else. She is miserable in her own acne-prone skin and experiences her mother’s generosity to other’s as neglect toward her. When her mother tries to give a homeless man a $20 bill, Abby snatches it away and insists on keeping it for herself. She pleads for a pair of $200 jeans and throws a tantrum in a fitting room over the less costly jeans her mother wants to buy instead.
In New York city, where every square foot of real estate is precious, Alex and Kate have already purchased the apartment of their next door neighbor, an elderly woman named Andra (Ann Guilbert). When Andra dies they will knock out adjoining walls and expand their living space. In the meantime, they try to appease Kate’s guilt over the arrangement by running errands for Andra and inviting her and her two granddaughters to dinner for Andra’s ninety-first birthday.
Andra’s grand-daughter Rebecca is her primary caretaker, a radiology tech who performs mammograms (Please Give opens with a montage of breasts being plopped on the mammogram machine). Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is somber, pale, tall and a bit awkward. Her life revolves around caring for Andra, who is relentlessly demanding and critical. Rebecca’s older sister Mary (Amanda Peet) is Rebecca’s opposite. Heavily tanned, witty, self assured, and cruel. Mary’s treatment of her grandmother is appalling, but also mirrors the old woman’s viciousness.
Nicole Holofcener is a masterful creator of these kinds of character – morally complicated, talky, not-too-likable urbanites. Letting them slam up against each other with all of of their spikiness and suspicions and cloudy motives is more important to Holofcener than any narrative through-line. Please Give is a comedy, sometimes wince inducing, but it also contains moments of great insight and tenderness. Some people choose to be unhappy, and need the freedom to be miserable even in the face of beauty or kindness. Sometimes the person who most needs your compassion and generosity is not the homeless person on the street but your anxious, bratty child. Maybe there is no simple way to assuage your guilt over having a good life – maybe you have to learn to live with that discomfort. Holofcener speaks for all of us who over-think our lives and relationships and does it, as always, with wit and a fantastic cast.