Kate, the vintage-furniture dealer played by Catherine Keener in Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's astute tale of ownership and guilt in the modern age, is a sucker for the needy. Her personal motto might be "Please, may I give?" When she's not trolling the apartments of dead New Yorkers looking for mid-century gems to buy and resell at a tidy profit, Kate makes attempts at volunteering. But her overdeveloped sense of empathy gets in the way she's too pained by the human condition to meet the requisites for being upbeat, first at a nursing home, then at a center for the mentally disabled and she's rejected.
The homeless, however, are ideal empathy targets for Kate. For a successful businesswoman who uses the word two when she means $200, handing a $20 bill to a transvestite street person is not a huge sacrifice, and it delivers an immediate rush of satisfaction. You can almost see this lady bountiful thinking, At least I'm doing something. Leaving an expensive Manhattan restaurant, she tries to hand off her doggy bag to an older black gentleman in baggy clothing standing near the restaurant's entrance. "I'm waiting for a table," he says indignantly.
This sly little moment is typical of Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing and Friends with Money): Kate, who aspires to always be considerate, doesn't always bother to actually consider. Her blunder is funny and awful, yet this isn't an invitation to hate her. Kate may occasionally be clueless, but we still like her and want very much to continue in her company. It's not just the understated yet near magical appeal of Keener, who has appeared in all four of Holofcener's movies, starting with 1996's Walking and Talking. It's the way the director tempers her warm, knowing writer's voice with just the right amount of edge.
Please Give is Holofcener's best movie to date. The slender plot presents itself without fuss a slice of Manhattan life, à la Woody Allen's early, most engaging work. Kate and her amiable husband Alex (Oliver Platt) own the apartment they share with their zitty teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele, convincingly communicating an adolescent's burning desire for the right jeans). They also own the apartment next door, which they bought from its current occupant, crotchety 90-year-old Andra (the very funny Ann Morgan Guilbert). Kate and Alex are, as politely as possible, waiting for Andra to die so they can knock down the walls and have their dream apartment.
So even at home, Kate is torn between the need for charity toward an old woman who prefers to be alive, thank you and a sort of practical greed: her desire for more real estate in which to spread out her good taste and possessions. Mirroring Kate's internal extremes are Andra's two granddaughters: dutiful, sweet Rebecca (played by Vicky Cristina Barcelona's Rebecca Hall) and mean Mary (Amanda Peet). The gangly, frumpy, utterly lovable Rebecca makes a living as a mammogram technician, while Mary gives facials and devotes her off hours to her tan and to stalking her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend. Mary feels owed; she maintains her outward self and expects life to eventually provide suitable trappings to go with her beautiful shell.
When Mary turns her hard, voracious gaze on soft, slightly bored Alex during a joint family celebration for Andra's 91st birthday, we tremble on his behalf. He seems self-aware enough to avoid doing something dumb "I know!" he says to Kate when she accuses him of flirting with Mary. "I don't know why. She's such a bitch" but what man wouldn't find Amanda Peet at least a little hard to resist? And just because Alex's life seems awfully good doesn't mean he doesn't suffer from his own form of ennui. In the most gentle, almost delicate way, Please Give reveals how easy it is to drift in all sorts of unexpected directions once you've achieved the goals you set in your youth.
Holofcener's filmmaking ambitions are not great in the typical sense. She's more like the slow and steady poker player quietly stacking chips in the corner. In her case, the chips are performances. Every actress (and Platt, just about the only male character) gets multiple opportunities to shine in character. If this were a Woody Allen movie, there would be twice as many big names, but you'd remember the performances of only a couple of them. Here, not only Keener and Peet but also Hall, Guilbert and Steele are lovely and, in their own way, amazing. But what makes Please Give work is the even hand playing these chips. For each of her biting insights, Holofcener offers a counterpoint suggesting we are all worthy of compassion and, yes, a little giving.