Movies: Please Give * * * *
Films peopled by nuanced, befuddled and convincingly complex characters are so rare that you feel like awarding them an extra star in heartfelt gratitude. Comedies featuring actual people as opposed to gurning idiots are rarer, and a bit like buses: you wait ages for one and then two come along together.
Last week, we had Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, in which Ben Stiller played a character so real and dislikeable that it takes you the whole film to even consider warming to him. And among the dramatis personae of Nicole Holofcener's Please Give lurk a couple of monsters that might give Roger Greenberg a run for his money.
Take old Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), for instance. A reclusive 90-year-old misanthrope, who rarely leaves her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, she makes her attentive granddaughter Rebecca's (Rebecca Hall) life a misery and isn't very popular with the neighbours either.
These include Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a wealthy pair of furniture sellers who are waiting for the old bat to die so they can buy her flat and knock down the walls to make their own place bigger. As Andrea is such a joyless battle axe, Alex feels just fine about this plan, but poor Kate is prone to guilt -- about Andra, about being well off, about everything.
The primary source of her angst is their business, which involves descending like buzzards on the apartments of the recently dead and buying up their possessions for a song. These they sell at suitably inflated prices in their store, but sometimes when Kate stares at the period sofas and armchairs, she thinks she has caught sight of the people who died in them.
An added burden is her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), a solipsistic drama queen and pimply pain in the ass. She and Kate fight like cats and dogs, a situation both hope will improve when they enlarge their apartment.
Feeling bad about wanting Andra to croke, Kate invites the old bird and her two granddaughters in for dinner, a move that leads to a very fraught evening and all sorts of unintended consequences. While Andra moans about just about everything, the dutiful Rebecca cringes apologetically, but her sister Mary (Amanda Peet) opts for a more honest assessment of the situation. Determined to acknowledge the elephant in the room, she asks Kate and Alex how they're going to redecorate after Andra dies.
Kate is horrified, Abby amused, but Alex is quietly enchanted. For reasons that never quite become clear, but may relate to Kate's neuroses, he begins a clandestine affair with Mary, humping her in the back room of the beauty spa where she works. But this seems unlikely to make anyone happy, least of all Alex, who loves his wife and is terrified of losing her.
Holofcener unravels all of this with deceptive skill, balancing the needs and motivations of all the characters to the extent that you find it hard to take sides. During the course of this busy, wistful and sometimes exceedingly witty film, she examines the themes of loyalty, memory, mortality and the perplexing human inability to be grateful for what you've got.
Even the film's least appealing characters, like Mary, turn out to be harridans for a reason, and time and again one is reminded that the time to make your mind up about people is never. Holofcener presides over some wonderful performances, too. Peet proves there's more to her than merely pretty, while Hall allows herself to look convincingly dowdy as the joylessly kind Rebecca, and Morgan Guilbert is magnificent as the steely old broad, who'll be hoodwinked by no one.
Platt is a wonderful character actor and it's great to see him get a decent amount of screen time, though it has to be said his character is hastily sketched, and Holofcener is better at drawing women. But it's Keener who steals the show, turning her ineffectually empathetic bourgeois New Yorker into a fully rounded uptown neurotic.