Critics often complain that Hollywood doesn't release enough films for women, especially during summer blockbuster season. Alas, the Twilight and Sex and the City franchises reinforce the warning to be careful what you wish for. Audiences deserve films more like Please Give, which qualifies as a "chick flick" only because it's written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and concerns relationships between women (not to mention a couple of guys) in New York City.
Anchoring her fourth film for Holofcener, Catherine Keener plays Kate, who manages a vintage furniture store with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt). The couple primarily secures their inventory from the adult children of the recently deceased. At one point, Kate silently ogles some great finds before offering deadpan sympathy to a grieving son.
Kate cringes at the accusation of being a "vulture," while Alex sees nothing wrong with their profession. "Your guilt is warping you!" Alex says, exasperated. "Why isn't it warping you?" she replies. "It is! Your guilt is warping me!" Platt provides one of the most relaxed, charming performances he's ever given, as if Alex is perfectly at ease in his aging, oversized body.
In an amusing running joke, Kate tries to assuage her bad feelings by over-tipping panhandlers and treating volunteerism as a misguided form of therapy. Paradoxically, she doesn't appreciate that her pimply teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) craves sympathetic attention. Instead, Kate and Abby turn disagreements over expensive blue jeans into turf wars, like only an unhappy teenager and her defensive mother can.
Compounding the awkwardness, Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment next door and plan to expand into it, if only the nasty 91-year-old (Ann Guilbert) who lives there would die already. Her granddaughters — kind, shy Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and tactless, appearance-conscious Mary (Amanda Peet) become involved in the neighbors' lives in unexpected ways: Abby, for instance, delights in Mary's rude honesty. Please Give spends much of its time watching Rebecca gradually emerge from her self-sacrificing shell. At one point, Hall communicates a lovely wordless epiphany when Rebecca realizes that she can't control the feelings of others.
Almost miraculously, Holofcener captures the behaviors and trends of New Yorkers without turning Please Give into a pushy sales pitch about the Big Apple. Details such as the oppressive peer pressure to go upstate and see the autumn leaves are so well observed, and speak to such familiar daily interactions, that the film's soft-spoken wit touches on universal insights.
Please Give's comedy of manners gently satirizes Kate's bleeding-heart liberalism, which proves no deeper than Alex and Mary's comparable fixations on personal attractiveness. The performances come off as warm and charming as Woody Allen's best ensemble films, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. Steele gives a particularly memorable portrait of a miserable teen whose sarcasm serves as an extension of her anguish.
The narrative meanders a bit, but provides rewarding object lessons in how to lead your life and achieve amity with loved ones. Please Give leaves you feeling wiser going out than you did coming in, and even at the price of a modern movie ticket, that's a steal.