Monday, May 17, 2010

Please don't

Amanda Peet shops around for bourgeois morality in Please Give.

Please Give, the new film by Nicole Holofcener, has been met with almost universal praise, but it's hard to see why. I don't mean that it's a disaster on the scale of Greenberg or Shutter Island (both of which were greeted with plenty of bizarre hosannas). To be honest, I don't even mean that it's bad. It's mildly entertaining, actually. But only mildly. What's most memorable about Please Give, in fact, is the sense we get of how far it stubbornly remains from achieving its true potential; Holofcener's writing (she scripted the movie) is wickedly acute, but her direction is always gently, delicately deflating; she somehow manages to constantly undermine her own best material.

Of course encountering even a mature premise makes many film critics do back-flips, and understandably enough. If I spent the year sitting through Iron Man 2 and Kick-Ass, I'm sure Please Give would look like King Lear to me, too. Instead, of course, I spend the season in live performance, so when that winds down, and I'm forced back into pop culture for a spell, it takes me awhile to adjust to the sandbox, or to the critical voices chattering therein. To be honest, reading, say, A.O. Scott after watching a mainstream (or even an arthouse) film is rather like watching one of those Look Who's Talking movies; the words seem to be being uttered by an adult, but the sensibility we perceive behind them has long since gone infantile.

But back to Please Give, which follows the parallel paths - and somewhat-parallel moral choices - of several upscale New Yorkers. Heavy lie the comfortable heads of these Manhattanites, Holofcener wants us to know - or at least some of their heads lie heavy. Perhaps the heaviest-headed is Catherine Keener's Kate, a successful vintage furniture dealer who, we are expected to believe, feels there's something wrong about marking up her goods. Yes, you read that right. She's guilty about covering her costs, and even profiting from glibly trendy New Yorkers.

Right. Now to me, this itself was a hard sell, especially in a successful career woman who's clearly pushing fifty. Beyond that, even the idea that what Kate does is rapacious or something is a little hard to figure; how, exactly, is margin supposed to be a bad thing? You don't have to be a Republican - or even a libertarian - to appreciate that retail works a certain way, or to find Keener's constant sighs and furrowed brow as she goes about her lucrative business more than a little ridiculous.

To be fair, even Holofcener begins to realize this, and starts making little jokes at Keener's expense (when she returns an expensive vase to its owner, for instance, he promptly breaks it). But when it comes to the really black comedy she has conjured at the center of her movie, the director seems unable to land her own punches. What could be bugging Keener's Kate, for instance, is how precisely she gets her stock - she basically raids estate sales, picking up 50's classics from families trying to offload mom's tacky coffee table or couch, and then turns right around and resells it (at that mark-up) as Upper-West-Side "irony." Ok, so far, so amusingly vulture-like. But Kate and hubby Alex (Oliver Platt) have also bought at a discount the apartment next to theirs, in the hopes that its elderly occupant, Andra (a refreshingly bitter Ann Guilbert) will soon drop dead (so they can remodel).

Thus Kate is preying on not just the dead but the nearly-dead - yet Holofcener can't seem to bear to direct this situation as sharply as she has written it. When Kate guiltily throws Andra a birthday party, for instance - with its subtext of "Damn, too bad you're still alive!" - we sense an opportunity for some serious satire of bourgeois hypocrisy, but Holofcener has such an earnest, gentle touch that the scene goes limp, even as its lines draw blood (the joke within the joke is that Andra is a hard-boiled, loveless old bag whom everyone would like to see buy the farm). In short, Holofcener has written an Ealing Studio comedy, but she thinks she's directing a millennial women's picture - and the results are relentlessly half-baked; we almost get the feeling that Holofcener, like her main character, feels guilty about what she's doing.

Not that nothing in the picture works - it just never works as well as it should. Actually, scratch that - some things in the picture just don't work. An affair between the gorgeous Amanda Peet and the so-not-gorgeous Oliver Platt, for instance, was even harder for me to believe in than Catherine Keener's stricken conscience. And the subplots involving Andra's granddaughters (Peet and Rebecca Hall, who's better here than she was in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) were diverting, but didn't seem to really go anywhere. Some aspiration toward generational (and even spiritual) scope seemed evident in Holofcener's writing - but aspiration toward what, specifically? I really had no idea.

Still, the scenes between Kate and her spoiled (but at least self-aware) daughter packed some ironic punch; I particularly liked the stand-off in which the brat snatches away (for herself) the twenty bucks Kate is trying to give the homeless. If only Holofcernes had been able to follow through consistently on the clear-eyed POV she shows here and there, she might have made quite a movie. As it is, Please Give devolves into a weird sermon - involving a pair of $200 jeans! - on the idea that "charity begins at home," or something like that. Which only made the movie itself feel like a charity case.