Tuesday, 22 June 2010

'Please Give' review: Intelligently written drama with moments of black comedy...

There is a new Splendor Podcast up now (on iTunes and the Picturehouse website). Episode 18 sees Jon and I discussing the Spanish thriller ‘Hierro’, before taking a look at two quirky American indie films: ‘Greenberg’ and ‘Please Give’. At the time of recording I hadn’t seen ‘Please Give’, but after Jon’s recommendation (given as far back as February after a screening at Berlinale) I had to go and see the film for myself.

Watching the trailer for Nicole Holofcener's 'Please Give' I got the impression I would be going to see a comedy about the affectations of upper-middle class New Yorkers in the vein of Woody Allen. In fact Catherine Keener's Kate, full of well-meaning liberal guilt, recalls Goldie Hawn's Steffi in Allen's 1996's musical comedy 'Everyone Says I Love You'. Add to that the presence of Rebecca Hall whose most famous role up to now was in another Woody Allen film: ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’. However, upon seeing the film I found something far less comic and far less full of snappy one-liners than the trailer seemed to suggest.

Aside from the lack of jokes, ‘Please Give’ is also markedly different from most Allen films in that the characters are not judged. Usually the Woody Allen character (often, in recent times, played by a surrogate Woody) critiques the other characters, informing the audience what to make of their pretensions and affectations. In ‘Please Give’ people are hyper-critical of themselves, but infidelity and callousness are not punished in Holofcener’s script. Instead they are presented with touching humanity.

‘Please Give’ is occasionally amusing (as when Kate mistakes a restaurant patron for a homeless man and offers him leftovers), but it is often more sad then it is funny. There is a lot of weeping and many pained expressions here. What humour there is is subtle and occasionally quite dark. Happily, the likes of Keener and Hall are joined by Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet in a cast that really understand this material. Keener is perhaps best known for her bitchy, alpha-female Maxine in Spike Jonze’s ‘Being John Malkovich’, but her character here is much gentler but no less convincing. Keener really is a fantastic actress. An assessment obviously shared by Holofcener as this is her fourth film working with Keener. It is also nice to see the likes of Platt and Peet given good roles here as both are often seen in rubbish or playing bit parts.

For me, the real star of the show is Rebecca Hall. Her character (also called Rebecca) is, in many ways, the emotional centre of the film and easily provides the most poignant moments. Hall plays an American here and does so effortlessly. In fact, I completely forgot she was English until after the movie. The film is also really accurate in its portrayal of the elderly. Ann Guilbert plays a brilliantly direct (“you’ve put on weight”) and stubborn 91 year-old lady who rings very true.

The film works best as an allegory for the role of charity in capitalist society. Keener’s Kate makes her money from buying furniture from the bereaved at a low price and selling it on for thousands of dollars. Out of guilt for her lifestyle, Kate gives to every homeless person she sees, neglecting her own family’s needs: especially those of her insecure daughter (played by Sarah Steele, a more convincing teenager than most in the movies). Kate’s guilt leads her volunteer helping the elderly and children with Down syndrome. However, she is quickly dismissed in both instances, as she is incapable of actually helping these people as she bursts into tears at their (imagined) plight. Like most affluent, middle-class people, Kate feels guilt for her lifestyle which she tries to address with the quick and easy giving of money, but not with actually addressing the root cause of problems. Kate will not give up her lifestyle because somebody else would just take her place ripping people off.

There is a lot going on in ‘Please Give’, which is easily one of this year’s most intelligent screenplays. Each character is multi-layered and has an interesting story. I won’t go into each one here. Overall, I found the film could have done with a little more humour. Personally, I always find that the films of people Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are more emotionally affecting because there is light and shade at all times. Moments of sadness often sit alongside moments of humour. In ‘Please Give’ there is a film which (despite nice moments of comedy) is predominantly focussed on being sad and dramatic. This is fine and the film is very good (well deserving of a second viewing), however it did not hit me on a really emotional level or have me laughing out loud.

'Please Give' is out now on a shockingly wide release for a film without big-name stars. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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