"It's more interesting to me if a person comes out of a movie feeling all the things that hopefully the movie has stirred up in them, not to think, 'Hey, you know, I'm a bad person' or 'Hey, you know, that's just like me.' It should be more of an emotionally felt experience...if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I probably couldn't.
Which is a good thing."
- Nicole Holofcener, director
I'll never forget the summer of 1997, when on one night I fell in love with two women at the same time. The film was Walking and Talking, a random selection I made at the video store (remember when we had those?). It was my first encounter with director Nicole Holofcener (that was her first feature) and actress Catherine Keener (I didn't see the hilarious Living in Oblivion until years later). It was love at first sight, and since then I have eagerly anticipated every project the two have worked on. In the case of Holofcener, the wait grows tortuous--four to five years separate each of her efforts, but I suppose perfection takes time. If I have to wait that long to savor films like Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends with Money (2006) and Please Give (2010), I'll gladly do it.
What makes these movies so special? Back in 1997, I vividly remember going to work the next morning on a mission--to eagerly tell all of my co-workers that they had to rent Walking and Talking, a title none of them were familiar woth. My enthusiasm was immediately met with one recurring question: "What's it about?" And when you're dealing with Holofcener's films, that question is surprisingly difficult to answer. With all of her works, the plot and setup are ultimately irrelevant--and that can be a roadblock to those who aren't open to "experiencing" rather than "watching". Viewers who focus on those mechanics are doing themselves a huge disservice--they're missing the big, beautiful picture.
In the case of Please Give, it's not really important that the film is centered on Manhattan couple Kate (Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), who own a small but fancy furniture boutique. They get the bulk of their antique merchandise from the families of recently deceased people, often turning a big profit from expensive finds that they buy cheap. The guilt from her sometimes questionable tactics might be part of the reason Kate tries to channel more positive energy in to the world through other means--she is itching to volunteer, and she frequently gives food and money to the homeless people she encounters through the New York City streets. That habit doesn't sit well with daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), an intelligent yet sometimes obnoxious single child whose battle with puberty is currently being won by her zits.
The family's path crosses with elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert), another apparently bitter soul who seems to relish dishing out cruel doses of honesty--often at the expense of her neighbors, but mostly at granddaughters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). The two live together but care for their grandmother, who seems to dominate their lives and contribute to their own unhappiness. Both women hide behind a tough veneer of disinterest, but you soon get the sense there's a lot underneath the surface (something you could say about most of the people in Holofcener's worlds). A radiology technician, the kind and compassionate Rebecca also seems to live in the shadow of her older, more attractive, bitchier sister--who administers facials at a spa ("I have to play this New Age shit...it makes me want to kill myself") when she isn't roasting under a tanning bed or spying on her ex-boyfriend's latest lover.
Rebecca and Kate don't like each other very much, which becomes painfully obvious in an awkward small talk exchange on an elevator (a scene that uses pauses to tremendous effect and perfectly encapsulates Holofcener's sense of humor--an unapologetically sarcastic, sometimes dark one):
Kate: "It's weirdly hot today, huh?"
Rebecca: "...well, I work inside."
Kate: "...we have to go outside to get to work and then go outside to leave work."
The families' two universes intersect because Kate and Alex have already bought Andra's adjacent apartment with the intent of expanding their own home when she dies ("She sees you, she sees death," admonishes Abby. "You're a vulture."). And with the woman's 91st birthday right around the corner, you get the sense the couple might be counting the minutes in the back of their ambulance-chasing heads:
Kate: "We should have bought that apartment from that guy downstairs."
Kate: "The guy right below us...Martin somebody. He's only 79."
Alex: "That asshole die?!"
And if that exchange doesn't make you think less of Kate and Alex, here's what they had to say after hosting a dinner party for Andra that brings everyone together--and turns into one giant fail:
Kate: "Makes me feel bad for Rebecca."
Alex: "Makes me feel less guilty waiting for [Andra] to die."
Kate: "Wanting her to die."
Kate: "Can't we just put a pillow over her head?"
Alex: "And start construction?"
Coupled with Andra's own bitter exclamations (a source of some of the film's funniest moments), Abby's anger (she's the hardest to initially warm up to) and never-hold-back Mary's "tell it like it is" frankness, these characters might comes across as terrible people if you aren't paying attention or refuse to look beneath the surface. It's a credit to the director and the equally incredible cast that all of these characters come across as flawed, fragile people yet still--trust me on this one--show an endearing side that makes them (and the film) irresistibly human. Holofcener and the cast is never afraid to show themselves in an unflattering light, and that's a beautiful thing to behold.
As with all of her films, the story unfolds like life, and the true magic of the work is in the little details--the slight expressions that betray a character's emotions, an exchange between a couple that has grown comfortable with each other, a lie that we spot from the start, an observation about a complete stranger, a fight over a pair of jeans, a conversation about hair dye, Howard Stern or coupons...things that may seem unimportant but that say so much about how people think and interact with each other, about the little things that influence our thoughts and actions--and about how we define ourselves and happiness. Please Give taps into the raw emotions and motivations we've all experienced--I dare any of you to admit you're better than any of these people. There's something so honest, natural and fluid about how these characters interact and behave, warts and all.
Keener-- Holofcener's muse since Walking and Talking--is her usual amazing self as the film's anchor. Is Kate sincere or just kidding herself? Are her "do the right thing" efforts just self-serving attempts to make herself feel better? "Something's telling me to do it...I just want to give something to someone. Giving money is easy for me," she tells an interviewer in one of two brutal volunteer sequences where Kate can't quite grasp the "positive thinking" method. The middle-age woman often looks dejected and defeated, with countless exclamations of "I feel terrible" and "I'm so sorry" becoming her calling cards, usually after her attempts at being nice backfire. Like all of the characters here, she is a complex person filled with contradictions, illustrated no better than through her relationship with (and eventual paranoia prompted by) a piece of furniture she crosses paths with ("It's a table...wood...oval."). That alone speaks volumes about her sometimes hypocritical behavior, a refreshing flaw that few actresses could turn into a positive.
I also can't say enough about everyone else in the cast, all of them simply perfect. Hall's eyes are a treasure--they tell as all we need to know about Rebecca from her first moment on screen, taking us through a journey that reveal so much about her (watch her contemplatively stare out of a window, and look at her face during a conversation with Abby as the two walk their dogs). Rebecca is the easiest character to like, which makes her struggles all the more painful. But when a patient tries to play matchmaker (Lois Smith and Thomas Ian Nicholas make the most of their minutes here), a ray of sunshine threatens to break through her depression.
Peet turns in perhaps her finest performance ever as Mary, a woman who comes across as the most assured (and bitchy) of the bunch. But there's so much more to her, and it's fantastic to see Peet slowly reveal her hardened character's layers as the film progresses. I most enjoyed watching the rapport between her and Hall, who have crafted a fantastic sisterly bond--these two characters get on each other's nerves, but they also love each other. It's refreshing that the actresses (and the script) never push their conflict too far. The scenes between them are some of the most rewarding of the film, with tiny quips, glances and exchanges injecting it with a lively energy (their elevator scene is also perfection).
Peet gets many of the film's laughs ("This has botulism," comes close to being my favorite line), much like Guilbert--who is so good as the grumpy grandma, it's easy to overlook. You forget she's acting, and Andra is the hardest role in the film--one that the actress nails. A day trip sequence that starts on the street, continues in a car and ends at a scenic destination is so perfectly nuanced, words can't do it justice. Revealing, hysterical and poignant, it combines everything that the film and the director do so well into one stunning segment.
Holofcener just has an innate understanding of human nature, and her ability--along with the actors--to relay her keen observations with such heartache and humor is rare. The imagery and editing is just as sharp as the performances and dialogue, which never skips a beat. The way these actors play off each other is remarkable--there's never any doubt that these relationships are real. Exchanges that seem like filler ("Will you rub my feet, please?") are anything but. That authenticity--one of the director's hallmarks--is without parallel. And that she's placed part of the story in the often snooty and bourgeois art world--where perception, first impressions and beauty being in the eye of the beholder are central themes ("I'm more of a floor rug person" is my favorite line of the film)--is pure genius. The film runs with those themes on multiple levels, taking on new meaning with the characters and their relationships. It's a joy to see them confront their own identities, with one development in particular--a meaningful exchange and meeting of the eyes between two central characters--providing a truly rewarding experience.
If you're at all familiar with the director's films, you "get it". If this is your first experience with Holofcener, you'll have to wait no longer than the opening credits to understand exactly what the filmmaker is all about. As the toe-tapping ditty "No Shoes" by The Roches plays (its sound evoking a fun '50s vibe despite its lyrics), we're thrust front and center into a mammogram montage. Yep, that's right...a bunch of breasts being smashed and squeezed right before our eyes. It's awkward, uncomfortable, honest, vulnerable, unflattering and funny...qualities that help make Please Give yet another must-see effort from this gifted voice.
"The subject matter is at times brutal and difficult to look at, and she sort of gets in there with a sharply focused camera and doesn't really let up."
- Rebecca Hall
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is okay, but could be stronger. It's not that the visuals are all that important to enjoying the film, but if you're going to stop and examine the details, you may be a tad disappointed. The color scheme is intentionally drab (the film has an autumn-like look to it to go along with the story's season), but that doesn't mean the picture can't be little sharper. Black levels and detail left me a little wanting in some spots, but the transfer in no way ruins the film...just don't go in expecting to be wowed by the picture.
The 5.1 track is equally adequate. This is a dialogue-driven work, and you'll never have any issues with it. But in the few instances where the rear channels make themselves known, the dialogue doesn't seem as crisp and vibrant as it could be. Subtitles come in English, English SDH, French, Thai, Chinese Traditional, Spanish and Korean.
"Nicole doesn't really write villains...everyone has villainous moments and everyone has sublime moments."
- Amanda Peet
The behind the scenes featurette (11:53) has director Nicole Holofcener, all of the primary cast and producer Anthony Bregman talking about the production. It's pretty short, and even shorter if you negate the story explanations and film clips. But the other moments provide some great quotes and insights on the project, including the director's vision and collaborative process. "She understands the fluidity of the medium, and that as you're developing a narrative things change," says Oliver Platt. "You learn things about the people and about the scenes as you're working on them...you do need to make adjustments, and she's just fantastic at creating an environment where that happens--and making you feel like part of the picture."
The actors briefly touch upon their characters and shooting in 100-degree weather (check out Bregman's upper lip!), while the director shares the philosophy behind her films and her sometimes-lowball sense of humor. The director notes much of the story is biographical, and talks about her working relationship with Catherine Keener--who she specifically writes for. "Her way of filmmaking is very kind of calm and sensitive and hilarious, and nobody stresses," says the actress. Amanda Peet notes she begged the director to put her in a film for seven years--and that it was hard to be mean to on-screen sister Rebecca Hall--while Ann Guilbert says she patterned Andra on a mother-in-law: "In a sense, it's about people getting along with each other, or making the effort to do so." Says the director of the vital role: "If an actor was playing this character who didn't have comedic ability or just comedic instincts, it would be really different."
Holofcener returns in four short director Q&A clips (totaling 8 minutes) from Film Independent's Preview Screening Series. They focus on the different challenges with writing and directing; how she casts, which is something she hates (""I look for somebody who's really natural, doesn't have a lot of tics that I have to control...like touching their hair all the time or something...someone who doesn't put on a show in an audition, like a preconceived idea of what I want"); her own grandmother (including a touching story about the film's pink nightgown); and her next project (a murder drama brought to her by friend Frances McDormand). The last clip also ahs her pondering the film's title, which she initially hated (but wait till you hear what she originally wanted to call it...yikes!). She has a great sense of humor, and it shows in these clips.
Also entertaining is the outtake reel (3:59), a short collection of bloopers. It's a very enjoyable sequence, one I could watch for hours--from the director's instruction to actress Rebecca Hall for a scene ("You're a spinster! You're a virgin spinster!") to Amanda Peet lamenting English people and channeling Bergman to Oliver Platt getting "sprayed by Peet", it shows the great camaraderie on set and is genuinely funny. The film's trailer and trailers for other titles round out the short but sweet extras package.
"What we like the film to do is to feel very real to people and to be real about these conflicts that we're all embroiled in in our lives."
- Anthony Bregman, producer
I can't praise the films of Nicole Holofcener enough, and Please Give continues her winning streak. Combined with a perfect cast that breathes life into her acute observations on human nature and interaction, the film revels in the little details that say so much about how we think and behave. Heartwarming, heartbreaking and hilarious, it's a poignant piece of work where every word and every expression has meaning. Don't get caught up in the mechanics of the plot--ultimately, it's irrelevant to the film's true purpose--and don't mistake these flawed people as bitter, lost causes. Just immerse yourself into these characters' lives and appreciate this beautiful work. Highly Recommended.