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Please Give

Catherine Keener is amused at one of Oliver Platt's bon mots.

(2010) Black Comedy (Sony Classics) Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Josh Pais, Elise Ivy, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nichols, Scott Cohen, Lois Smith, Amy Wright, Romy Rosemont, Kathleen Doyle, Kevin Corrigan. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Guilt works on us in funny ways. Some of us feel compelled to assuage our guilt by doing things for others, while others simply hide that guilt away and ignore it, much like listening to a long-winded preacher on Sundays. Few of us confront it head-on.

Alex (Platt) and Kate (Keener) own an antique furniture place which is primarily stocked by finds at estate sales, or having Kate find grieving children to buy large amounts of furniture for as little as she can get away with and having Alex sell the pieces for as much as he can get away with. Pretty much typical capitalism.

However, the circumstances work on Kate’s conscience and she tends to give cash and food to the local homeless in her trendy Chelsea neighborhood in New York City much to the irritation of daughter Abby (Steele) who sees little generosity from her mother.

Alex and Kate, eager to expand their small apartment, have managed to purchase the apartment next door which they will eventually knock down the walls to in order to make a larger living space for themselves. The problem is that Audra (Guilbert, who was once Millie the neighbor on The Dick van Dyke show) lives in that apartment currently, so Alex and Kate must wait for her to die in order to start construction. The fact that Audra is a bitch of epic proportions makes this an easier proposition. This also makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Audra’s grandchildren, who have issues of their own.

Rebecca (Hall) is a mammogram technician who is kind enough on the surface, but wishy washy and indecisive deep down. She has been guilt-tripped into caring for Audra who uses her for a verbal punching bag. Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist who appears to be confident and strong but has some anger issues and a sharp tongue that occasionally rears its ugly head.

That’s really it in terms of plot. Holofcener, one of the better American independent directors out there, prefers to deliver slices of life and character studies more than telling a story from beginning through middle to end. There is a resolution of sorts, but the payoff is somewhat low-key and doesn’t really signal any sort of growth or change on the part of any of the people in the cast.

Holofcener, unlike other directors, tends to put more attention on the women of the cast which isn’t to say that Platt doesn’t get much screen time; only that Holofcener tends to pay more attention to the main female parts of Kate, Rebecca, Mary, Audra and Abby. Platt does get some of the better lines in the movie and makes a fine foil for Kate.

Keener, who has worked with Holofcener before, is the main focus here. She talks a good game about compassion and community involvement but she mostly uses these things as a means of making herself feel better because she’s well aware that while she is doing nothing illegal she is clearly in a moral grey area. That calls into question the genuineness of her actions and Abby’s caustic remarks about charity beginning at home at first seem self-centered and teen-centric but as you come to understand Kate’s motivations, Abby’s charges seem to be more right on the money.

Most of the characters aren’t always easy to get along with and Holofcener likes it that way; her characters are presented as being flawed and occasionally stepping over the line of decency (Mary stalks the girlfriends of an ex-boyfriend she can’t get over; Alex has an affair). The relationships are complicated and often muddied by the human frailties of those in them, which is pretty much what real life is all about.

This isn’t strictly speaking 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment but it is the kind of movie that you should find fascinating from beginning to end. Parts of it are painful to watch and others will make you smile in spite of yourself. If you are still thinking about a movie several weeks after you’ve seen it then the director has done his or her job and in my case Holofcener did her job well.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written and well-acted, particularly by Keener, Platt and Peet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not always easy to watch, particularly since most of the character have some sort of hang-up that makes them unlikable for long stretches, particularly in Steele’s case.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, as well as some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spa scenes were shot at Skintology, a chic spa in the Chelsea area of New York City where most of the movie was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel and a director Q&A from a preview screening.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.3M on $3M production budget; it’s unlikely this was profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Micmacs

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