I remember seeing a trailer for Friends With Money and thinking that it sounded awful. The problems of the rich! Pfft! Who wants to hear about that? I admit that I never actually popped that movie in for a spin, but four years later, watching Nicole Holofcener's follow up Please Give, it almost feels as if she's made this movie as a response to that kind of reaction, a movie where the characters are still rich, but can't stop worrying that it might be wrong to keep it all to themselves.
In this case, the guilty party is a woman named Kate (Catherine Keener), whose job consists of watching the obituaries like a hawk and then swooping in with her affable husband Alex (Oliver Platt). They buy up the various items left behind by the deceased in order to re-sell them at their fashionable store in New York City, usually for astronomical mark-ups. The money is ridiculously good, and as she watches culture obsessed New Yorkers mull over the aesthetic merits of an old futon -- priced to go at a few thousand dollars -- she wonders if what she's doing is wrong. For the most part, she eases her worry by handing cash to strangers on the street, much to the dismay of her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who would rather have the money to spend on jeans, but it gnaws at her with each new bereaved family she meets.
Things are further complicated by her neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), an old woman in the twilight of her life. Kate and Alex are looking -- not maliciously, but still, looking -- to buy her apartment up when she passes on, so that they can expand their own, and (much to Kate's consternation), both of Andra's granddaughters have noticed. The first one, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), is a nurse who spends most of her time taking care of Andra, and she spends most of her days being wildly stressed out by Andra's many mood swings and belligerent attitude. Rebecca's sister Mary (Amanda Peet) only makes things worse for her by obsessing over her ex's new girlfriend and actively engaging Kate and Alex about their plans for the apartment, occasionally in Andra's presence.
There are scenes in Please Give, particularly during the third act, that are perfectly on-point and immensely satisfying. However, the movie is in keeping with a lot of smaller movies these days, which feel are like 45-60 minute short films stretched to feature length with the application of major padding. It's not that the movie's numerous side plots, including a light romantic interest for Rebecca (Thomas Ian Nicholas), or Alex's trysts with Mary, are outright boring or uninteresting, but they just don't feel like they have much to do with the central thrust of Kate's guilt and the proper channels for her to deal with it. The movie just shambles along, content to wander until enough time has passed that it can get on with wrapping things up.
During the wandering, the viewer's attention is retained by a talented cast. Reading the plot as described above might make Kate out to be a heartless woman whose guilt is selfish and silly, but Keener finds the right balance between average and opportunistic that the audience is willing to empathize with her. It's not that Kate and Alex want anyone to die, but if they're already dead, and the family members that remain (Josh Pais, Kevin Corrigan, Elizabeth Berridge) are all too busy and wrapped up in their own lives that to really deal with the belongings, why not take it off their hands? They're doing the bereaved a favor! Yeah, okay, so the re-sale prices are extravagant, but nobody has to buy tacky shelves for thousands of dollars, either. Of course, even if Kate believes all of this, she's still at a loss at how to react when another dealer, with the air of a customer, snatches up one of her tables and re-re-sells it for a $2000 markup.
What makes a good person? It's just stuff, isn't it? The irony of my attitude towards Friends With Money is that Please Give may or may not suggest that it's okay to be rich and a little selfish, because there's nothing to be accomplished by worrying yourself to death over it. On the other hand, maybe worrying is a sign in and of itself. As they always say, it's the thought that counts.
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