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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Please Give

Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt star in indie comedy

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Touring the apartment of a recently deceased woman, Kate (Catherine Keener) acts noncommittal about the paintings on the walls, the mid-century modern furniture and the objects on the shelves. The dead woman’s son is bumbling and in a hurry to settle up. “It’s best just to get rid of this stuff. It’s probably junk,” he says. Facing away from him, Kate’s eyes brighten and her mouth opens into a silent “Wow!” This apartment is a treasure-trove for a dealer like herself and the new owner is a dummy who doesn’t realize what’s he’s inherited. Agreeing to part with a small sum of money to take the “junk” off his hands, she looks forward to making a tidy profit off the goods at her trendy boutique.

Kate is the central character, though not the only major one, in Please Give, a smartly written film from indie director Nicole Holofcener. An amusing scenario of contemporary ethical uncertainty in the always picturesque setting of Manhattan, Please Give tries to negotiate between the moral poles of altruism and selfishness. A sharp businesswoman, Kate feels guilty, as if she’s robbing graves for her boutique. She presses $20 bills into the hands of the homeless who begin to camp around her condo. But her good intentions are often steppingstones to embarrassment. When she offers her carryout to a black man on the sidewalk, she never guesses that he’s the patron of an expensive, trendy restaurant waiting outside for a table.

Kate’s husband and business partner, Alex (Oliver Platt), is in mid-life crisis and lurches into an affair with the coldhearted, unkind granddaughter (Amanda Peet) of their senescent neighbor lady. That aged woman (Ann Guilbert), stubbornly clinging to life, has lost all self-censorship and discretion. Fortunately, her other granddaughter, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), is compassionate if narrowly focused. Kate’s acne-infected, iPod-wired teenager (Sarah Steele) is in revolt against her mother’s verbal evasions and show of concern for the less fortunate. “No one ever says the truth!” she says in exasperation.

Please Give’s weakness is its assumption of a widespread aversion against dealers in collectibles who turn over their discoveries for profit. Kate’s professional guilt doesn’t ring true, unless it echoes unease over the materialism of people unable to define themselves beyond the things they own. Along with finding droll humor in everyday people and situations, Please Give excels for its fully rounded characters, people who fall short while trying to do the right thing and occasionally do something right without even caring.