Originally Reviewed – 4/5/2010
Right before I moved from New Jersey to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I heard my fair share of warnings and platitudes from friends and family. “Don’t take the subway after 10”, “HOW much are you paying for your apartment?” and “New York is a cold, heartless place” were some of the more common comments. The most interesting one, however, was a saying my younger brother had picked up somewhere and passed on to me. He said, “Live in NY for a bit but leave before it makes you too hard, live in LA for a bit but leave before it makes you too soft”. The opening twenty minutes of the latest film from writer/director Nicole Holofcener made me immediately think of that mantra. Brimming with a cast of unsympathetic characters, I first thought, “Great, another snarky, too cool for the room, Manhattanite comedy”. “Do we really need another flick about rich yet depressed New Yorkers?”, I thought to myself. Luckily, the answer is yes as the film rises above the cliquey pretense of its privileged Central Park West setting providing arc, depth and even redemption in its characters. The end result is a relatable, wryly outrageous and often very funny dark comedy about complex people dealing with a range of issues, all with a real emotional center.
Just be aware that it takes a bit of time before these characters become tolerable. The principals of the film is a couple, played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, who make a very fine living purchasing antique furniture from the estate sales of the recently deceased and reselling the pieces at a crazy mark-up. When their next door neighbor starts knocking on Heaven’s Door, they salivate at the thought of buying up the place, giving them a chance to expand their own domicile. Charming! Add in the old lady’s granddaughters, one a sweet yet painfully bland radiologist, the other a cold, emotionally vapid skin specialist as well as the couple’s whining, angst ridden daughter and you have the makings of a pretty rough edged cast, especially given the frankness of their disconnection. The only redeemable character at the beginning is the grandmother herself, played brilliantly by Ann Morgan Guilbert. Everybody else is so wrapped up in their world of materialism, codependency and soullessness, you really feel as though these characters are doomed, New York caricatures, worthy of only our dislike as they meander through the indie blasé of the first twenty minutes.
Luckily, this all changes as the film trucks on thanks to some really fine development and direction by Holofcener. Not to give anything away, but we slowly learn about each of the characters fears, insecurities and past pain, opening them up as real human beings. While there isn’t much a plot in Please Give, as the five main characters mix and intermingle, you learn there is much more to this film than snarky quips and cold behavior. Each character is wonderfully drawn and realized, providing a center for the sometimes shocking humor, which almost always works and had me laughing out loud more than a couple of times. By the time the film ends, you not only understand each and every character in the film a bit better, you find things in your own life you can relate to and connect with. Add to that a couple of truly touching scenes, especially the scene where Keener visits a hospice for handicapped children and you have a film that works on both an emotional and comedic level.
Despite a very thin plot, Please Give is a touching and often hilarious character study of people searching for more than what they have, despite them having just enough. While the characters, at first, seem to have no redeeming qualities, the audience quickly learns that there’s pain behind the wall these people put up, walls that we all can find at least some connection to. Thinking back on this film and the comment my brother made almost eighteen months ago, I can see the kernel of truth in that statement reflected in the film. Those hard shelled characters certainly live on this island, strap hanging the subway, pushing past you at the supermarket, muttering grumpily as they speed past on the sidewalk. What that quote doesn’t take into account, however, is how they got there and what’s really inside these unique characters when you brush aside the bristles. Please Give does exactly that, providing a funny, charming and oft outrageous character study of six New York characters, all searching for their own special something, just like everybody else in this great city.
Score – 80%