- Alone, but in a crowd: Sarah Steele and Catherine Keener
Toward the end of Please Give, the new film from Nicole Holofcener, there's a scene so grotesque and disturbing that you may have to look away.
It takes place between a mother and her 15-year-old daughter (Sarah Steele) on a street in New York City. They'd been love-hate from the start, but now the daughter's rage reaches a crescendo. She wanted a pair of $200 jeans. First Mom said no, then yes, but the daughter's petulance led to a fight in the boutique. She still doesn't have her jeans when they later come upon a homeless man, and the mother reaches to give him $20.
Then, it happens: The daughter snatches the bill from her mother's hand and won't give it back. She just won't. They argue in front of the man, whose reaction Holofcener spares us. Finally, the mother takes out her last five and hands it to the man, copiously apologizing for everything.
Horrified? No, perhaps not -- or at least, not as much as you should be. Please Give is a beautifully acted psychological comedy-drama of mixed emotions, and Holofcener's concise storytelling and tone-perfect script keep you off balance and struggling to find someone or something to embrace.
In Walking & Talking and Friends With Money, Holofcener explored this subculture of upper-middle-class New Yorkers with the same mix of dry humor and unsettling pathos. But I don't remember those earlier films being quite so unforgiving of their personae, and I like her work now more than ever.
The mother is Kate (Catherine Keener), who, with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), owns a Manhattan shop that sells vintage furniture. The people selling the musty old things in their dead parents' apartments don't seem to think the items are worth much, so naturally Kate doesn't shatter their illusion. At one home, she pays a couple thousand dollars for numerous items and soon sells one of the pieces, a pristine wooden table, for $5,000.
And it bothers her, which is why she gives money to the homeless, wakes up in the middle of the night to Google "volunteer opportunities," and applies to help at a nursing home and a center for mentally challenged kids (where she breaks into pitying tears and is asked to leave). Her pimply daughter has mood swings and body issues, and her jovial husband eventually has an affair with the granddaughter of the woman next door.
Ah, yes, the neighbors: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mousy technician at a mammogram center; and her sister Mary (Amanda Peet, at her brittle best), who gives facials and has sex with Alex. The sisters' craggy, unexpurgated, 91-year-old grandmother (a nimble Ann Guilbert, who played Millie on the old Dick Van Dyke Show) is knocking on death's door with one hand and flipping them all the bird with the other. When she dies, Kate and Alex will buy her adjoining apartment and knock down the wall (they discuss their plans in front of her one night at dinner).
Holofcener doesn't quite come right out and tell us to loathe most of these people, but I certainly hope she intended us to get there on our own. They smile or whine or snipe through their own personal apocalypses, and if they bother to assuage their consciences at all, they do so by offering a pittance here and there to the drag queen on the corner or to the gray-bearded old black man standing outside a restaurant (except that he's waiting for a table).
The characters in Please Give struggle with their two responsibilities: as members of their intimate families, and as members of the family of humankind. They succeed and fail in pathetic spurts, and Holofcener's brilliant ending, which I think is her final (cruel, if you like) joke on the audience, but which I suppose you could argue is ambiguous, may leave you believing that this family (take your pick) can be saved.
In her shop, Kate looks at pictures of kids with clefts lips when business is slow, and she laments the way she practically steals things from the people who sell their furniture to them. She asks Alex, "How come you think it's OK?" His reply so skillfully sums up the abomination at the center of Please Give that it must have been a revelation to Holofcener when she wrote it: "Because it's OK," he says. But it's not, unless of course you happen to think it is.
Starts Fri., June 18