The most telling moment in Please Give occurs as Kate, Alex, and their daughter, Abby, walk home after dining out. Carrying her leftovers in a styrofoam container, Kate sees an African-American man standing on the sidewalk near a restaurant. Unable to resist the eleemosynary urges that impel her to distribute $20 bills to homeless strangers, she hands him her food. “I’m waiting for a table,” he explains, incredulous and indignant.
What the moment tells us is that Please Give is a comedy that manufactures mirth out of urban insecurities. Kate is a privileged white New Yorker uncomfortable with her privileges. “Your guilt is warping you,” Alex (Platt) complains when, moved by the anguish of its heirs, Kate buys an ugly heirloom to stock in their second-hand furniture shop. Kate and Alex are social parasites who prosper by swooping on grieving offspring and selling at inflated prices the fixtures and ornaments of their deceased parents. Parasites are essential to ecological vitality, but, atoning for her pricey Fifth Avenue address, Kate volunteers to spend time among Alzheimer’s patients and children with Down syndrome.
Kate and Alex own the apartment adjoining theirs and, since it is occupied by a 91-year-old grump named Andra (Guilbert), have already begun assessing their neighbor’s furniture and plotting to knock down the walls and enlarge their own space. Nothing pleases Andra, not even the birthday presents that she unceremoniously tosses into the trash. She is as appreciative of her granddaughter Rebecca, who tries her best to assist the old woman, as she is of Rebecca’s nasty older sister, Mary, who does not. Mary, who works at a facial spa called Skintology, is as vain as Rebecca, who works at a mammography clinic and defines breasts as “tubes of potential danger,” is generous. “You’re a really good person,” Kate tells Rebecca, but goodness in this film is relative and ineffectual.
This is a New York story whose writer and director, Nicole Holofcener, began her career working for Woody Allen and later directed episodes of Sex and the City. “I think it’s an awful place to raise kids,” says a character in Please Give, but that does not discourage filmmakers from positioning their cameras between the Hudson and East Rivers. The characters in Holofcener’s new film lack any awareness of Darfur, black holes, or even New Jersey. On one occasion, a drive upstate to view the autumn foliage, they do range outside Manhattan. However, stubborn Andra insists on turning her back to the gorgeous polychromatic scenery. Holofcener’s take on her self-centered New Yorkers is sardonic, but that might not be enough to redeem the film for self-centered Texans. While mocking 15-year-old Abby’s (Steele) fixation on removing zits and acquiring a $235 pair of jeans, Please Give is nevertheless stuck in its characters’ classy metropolitan zip code.
Anchored by Catherine Keener’s beguiling turn as Kate, the film is a congeries of arresting moments and imperfect characters. However, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I kept waiting for a well-tuned cinematic engine to kick in but had to settle for a series of kicks at designer pants.