Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a gift for converting small, everyday situations into the kind of gentle comedy that some viewers relate to easily, and others find too subtle by half. In Holofcener’s Please Give, Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play antique brokers waiting for their 91-year-old neighbor to die so they can buy her apartment and expand their own. In the meantime, they try to stay on cordial terms with the cantankerous old lady’s granddaughters: shy mammography tech Rebecca Hall and bronzed, bitchy spa worker Amanda Peet. Please Give is short, sweet, and largely uneventful; people flirt, bicker, lie, and worry. After making two consecutive films largely about the self-absorbed culture of Los Angeles, Holofcener has returned to New York City, where self-interest is often expressed as neighborliness.
Please Give is also about self-image. The characters constantly study their flawed skin, or in Keener’s case, act philanthropic to a fault to make up for the feeling that every move they make is harmful. Even Keener’s job is significant: She sells furniture that’s either ugly or valuable, depending on the buyer’s perspective. Please Give documents a short stretch of the lives of Keener and her immediate circle, as they make rash decisions about their love lives and their careers, then flinch when they realize how their choices appear to others.
As a director, Holofcener doesn’t have much visual flair, and as a writer, her distrust of conventional dramatic beats results in movies that are slight by design. But she weaves the threads of this story together with such skill that even the emphasis on nothing begins to feel profound and ingratiating. Please Give is full of moments that don’t make it into other movies, as when Keener and Platt stumble across their blotchy-skinned teenage daughter buying makeup and watch her with a kind of awe, or when they decide to treat her to a pair of $200 jeans. Some people might find it distasteful to make a movie about guilty rich folks who give themselves permission to splurge. Others will rightly appreciate the honesty.