Grouchy Grandmothers and Garrulous Girls
Starring: Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall
By Robert Patrick
Rebecca Hall – who is ostensibly the most sympathetic character in director Nicole Holofcener’s existential drama – has the sulky bangs and expressive eyes of a disoriented toddler. You could trace an upside down horseshoe on her face and have the same kind of long-look zipped across her lips. Yes, Hall has a slender figure and eyebrows that are forever inquisitive. The whole time, as if I were a casting agent, I would think to myself, “man, she would be good as Karen Carpenter – or even Patti Smith!” That my mind was wandering, to the ebb of my own daydreams, was not a glowing endorsement to Hall’s current film, “Please Give” – but I digress.
The aforementioned movie props up Hall as a radiology technician, named, conveniently enough, Rebecca, who handles mammograms. She often does this task, with a vapid look in her eyes, as if she were one of the legions of disentranced workers in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Her frail physique, amiable vocal tics, and apprehensive folded-arm-posture paint a warm glow over a character who looks after her ailing grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert).
Rebecca’s sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), on the other hand, is a bronze statuette with the personality of a pick-axe. She lacks a filter in social situations, and is completely self-absorbed. Both of the girls, in their own way, care for Andra. You may think their grandmother is the obligatory Betty White clone, who waddles around saying cute things, but she instead is a culmination of Red Foxx, George Carlin and Lisa Lampanelli. The old woman is not skittish, even in the least bit, and spends her time angrily wagging her finger, making impolite gestures, and throwing tantrums. In the stockpile of soundbytes from “Please Give,” Ann Morgan Guilbert, in a state of decrepit disparagement, spits out at least ninety-nine percent of them.
Meanwhile, Cathy (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a kitschy business in Manhattan that sells plush furniture and oddly constructed wall units. The unsuspecting duo are essentially opportunists who buy out the property of the newly deceased, then turn around, without a hiccup in their mind, and sell the items back to customers at their store for triple the price. The twosome live a merry, guiltless life, until Cathy begins to feel wretched over her warped morality.
What transpires next is something pulled from the pages of Sam Mendes American Beauty; marred vignettes of feigned happiness and emotional transparency collide, from both families, as their worlds are flipped on their side. It’s sort of customary in an age of Noah Baumbach films to have protagonists look as slimy and egocentric as possible. There are a lot of shades of Miranda July and Todd Solondz. And while it’s perfectly fine to have introspective mind-benders with the heart of a sardonic playwright, the straps of such a movie can be a little heavy on the back of some viewers. Heck, I even see this film as a Woody Allen opus without the neurotic centerpiece.
There are a lot of good reasons to see “Please Give,” though most of them come from the meek subtleties of Rebecca Hall and the curt defiance of Ann Morgan Guilbert. Some of the film is a little too long, with winding corners that nearly send the screenplay off a steep cliff, but the movie does end with a bow that, if not for being a little crooked, wraps up the story just fine. How authentic looking is this film? Oliver Platt is his usual self, as he plays someone with the physical affinities of a wet-nosed hound dog; Catherine Keener is stressed out, rubbing her forehead in gloom, and cranking out heavy sighs; and Amanda Peet does her job playing a loose-lipped blabbermouth with the tact of a raccoon. None of its really a stretch, but maybe that’s why it’s so believable.
If you like scathing humor and wry scripts, this should be a rail to cross. Oh yeah, and watch for one of the most unexpected title sequences of the year.