Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A small, but telling slice of New York life

$200 jeans? Not for this kid.

I know the character Catherine Keener plays in director Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, a New York based drama that revolves around an apartment occupied by a sour old woman. I’ve met Keener's character in real life – and if not her, a damn close facsimile.

Keener’s Kate is a conscience-stricken New York woman who’s overwhelmed by a mixture of guilt and compassion. She’s uncomfortable giving her teen-age daughter $200 for designer jeans as long as homeless people wander the streets. She feels guilty about the way she earns her living, which involves buying furniture for the mid-century modern shop she and her husband own. She buys cheap and sells dear. That bothers her. So does the fact that she shows up at a time when bereaved people are trying to unload the stuff their recently departed parents held dear.

Kate lives in a world of pain, but an element of selfishness infuses her agony. She uses pain to wall herself off from others and to deny life’s simpler pleasures. She suffers from a kind of middle-class paralysis in which nothing satisfies -- and nothing changes.

To make matters worse, Kate and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) are waiting for the woman next door (Ann Marie Guilbert) to die so that they can acquire her apartment, breakdown a wall and buy themselves more breathing room.

Of course, both Kate and Alex know that there’s something unforgivably ghoulish about pinning their hopes for expanded comfort on the death of a neighbor, even one who’s so foul tempered, it’s possible that no one will mourn her passing.

I’m not a died-in-the-wool Holofcener fan. I didn’t go wild over Friends with Money or Lovely and Amazing, but Please Give doesn’t seem to be trying so hard for relevance. A relaxed, life-sized strategy allows Holofcener to hold up a mirror to lives that may be nothing like our own, yet remain entirely recognizable.

The movie mingles the story of two families. Kate, Alex and their perpetually irritated teen-age daughter (Sarah Steele) are brought into contact with Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the granddaughters of the embittered woman next door.

The woman’s granddaughters react to her in different ways, Mary with undisguised contempt; Rebecca with dutiful concern. Holofcener, who also wrote the script, eventually reveals the motivation behind the behavior of each of the granddaughters, who – in lesser hands – might have seemed like refugees from a sitcom.

Here, all the characters are fleshed out in ways that make them funny, alarming and human. Peet’s Mary gives facials at a spa and catches Alex’s roving eye. Rebecca ‘s a tech who administers mammograms. Holofcener opens the movie with shots of a variety of breasts being measured and analyzed. Possible bad news lurks ominously in the background.

Despite its bland and forgettable title, Please Give stands as a wonderfully acted slice of life among people whose problems may not be quite as momentous as they think. Funny as it can be, Please Give also is laced with the sadness of characters whose lives never feel quite complete. Most of them know little comfort in their own skins.

Sound familiar? I don't mean you, of course. I'm just saying.

Please give opens in Denver Friday.

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