"...a laser eye for the special state that is Manhattan misery."
"Please Give" is well made and extremely unpleasant. The unpleasantness is a
measure of the actors' success in creating a few of the least likeable people to
grace the screen this year. That's one way to look at it. The other is to
recognize that Nicole Holofcener has a practiced laser eye for the special state
that is Manhattan misery. If you can see it through that lens, you may even find
it funny - which is what I'm told it's supposed to be.
These are your new friends: a charmless, nasty, grandmother from hell (Ann Guilbert); two granddaughters - one saintly (Rebecca Hall), one a narcissist (Amanda Peet); a married couple - saintly wife Kate (Catherine Keener), clueless dork of a husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and their adolescent daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), a selfish, rude teenager.
Here's the plot: Alex and Kate buy up the furniture of the newly dead and sell it to customers who wander through their upper west side apartment. Suffering from lack of space, the couple has bought the apartment next door that belongs to the awful grandmother. It will become theirs when she dies. One of her granddaughters can barely wait for her to do just that; the other, kindly one is a rare mix of compassion and understanding of the human condition who takes good care of her ungrateful granny.
The fact that the family is financially comfortable in the most expensive city in the world has instilled in Kate a nagging sense of guilt that makes it nearly impossible for her to enjoy anything. As if that weren't enough, her greedy, materialistic teenager is a constant reminder that it is a sin it is to have money.
There are two subjects that New Yorkers have made their own. Others may talk about relationships and real estate, but New Yorkers rarely talk about anything else. The fact that this family wants the neighboring apartment desperately but can't talk about it because the grandmother still breathes is a neat twist on the dominance of the subject. Racked with guilt because of his comfortable marriage, Alex draws minimal pleasure from his indulgence in a comically awful affair.
Holofcener, who has no use for subtlety, unsettles us from the outset by filling the screen with repeated images of breasts in all shapes and size being irradiated by mammograms. The nice granddaughter is the compassionate radiologist who does good work. In mid picture, Holofcener hits again with an intensely detailed scene of zit popping of the spoiled adolescent. What do these scenes do for the picture? nothing.
Whatever her motives, she has created a gang that I would run from on the street and yet I have the feeling that I am missing something Woody Allenesque about this observer who trains her sharp eye on the unique brand of Manhattan loneliness: never alone, always lonely. You decide, but the acting is sufficiently good that I'm still angry at the whole bunch.
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