June 12, 2010
Please Give (2010) ***
Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Please Give (2010)- Baumbach-lite...too often devoid of truth. Just barely enough genuine moments to make it watchable. *** out of 5
Though I don't think anyone who knows me would describe me as an optimist or an idealist, I hope people don't see me as a cynic or a misanthrope. Personally, I can't stand people that do nothing other than make the world a more miserable place. Sure, one can try and explain away people's nastiness by saying that they have issues of anger or insecurity, but these excuses don't make it any more fun to be in the presence of the Dave and Debbie Downers of the world. As I delve more and more into cinema, I'm finding it easier to spend time with unlikeable main characters; however, for me to truly embrace unpleasantness, it has to be compensated (or even overcompensated) by a smart, truthful comment on the human condition. One needs a reason to befriend a hateful person; the same can be said for a movie about hateful people. Give me truth, or cheer the hell up.
Noah Baumbach successfully provided a brilliant, unique exploration of a malcontent with Greenberg earlier this year. Please Give comes off like Greenberg's shy little sister considering, first of all, that it pulls its punches at the end, and second, that it's not as insightful as it needs to be to make the idiots within worth the viewer's time. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose previous work includes Friends with Money and Lovely & Amazing, neither of which I've seen, seems to want us to see ourselves in these characters, but they come off a bit too exaggerated and muddled to be all that identifiable.
Take, for instance, Cathy and Alex, played by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, a married couple who buys furniture from the vulnerable, grieving family members of recently dead people. At the beginning of the film, they seem happy doing what they're doing, but early on, they both start feeling guilty. What caused them to begin to feel this way? I have no idea! Cathy deals with her guilt by giving lots of money to bums on the street and looking for volunteer opportunities which never work out when she's told that she needs to be a cheerful presence when working with the less fortunate. Alex, on the other hand, begins having an affair with Mary, a pretty but monstrous granddaughter of his 91 year old neighbor. Oliver Platt is one of my favorite actors, but he's not the best looking guy in the world. Therefore, I'm inclined to ask why Mary, played by the beautiful Amanda Peet, wants to sleep with him in the first place? Mary doesn't like her grandmother who is a bitter old woman being taken care of by mild-mannered Rebecca, played by Vicky Cristina Barcelona's Rebecca Hall. Rebecca spends too much time with her miserable grandmother, which has her yearning for a relationship in order to bring meaning to her life. Meanwhile, Cathy and Alex's 15 year old daughter is dealing with teenage angst and zits.
To recap: Cathy's a guilty New York liberal; Alex is a guilty cheating husband; Mary is a selfish witch; Rebecca is a meek loser; Grandma is an old pill, and the daughter is an insecure brat. The trite way I described the characters just now perfectly expresses the complete lack of nuance which exists both in the script and in the actors' performances. Everyone involved plays everything just a bit too on the nose, and the result is a film that feels artificial and manufactured, despite some interesting moments.
The film's ending, though a bit disconnected with everything that precedes, actually makes the film passable despite its lack of authentic sociological insight. One would expect this kind of film to end neatly, but it leaves quite a bit up in the air, which is just right. These people are too troubled to live happily ever after. Ultimately, these characters learn just a little bit about themselves, and they grow only slightly by the time the credits roll. Holofcener's humble ambitions provide charm and truth that's lacking in Please Give's characterization and exposition.
There are better and more truthful films out there about deeply flawed people navigating their way through a cruel world. Yet, Please Give is one of the few in this genre that actually offers the kind of redemption that feels in sync with the nature of the terrible people within.