July 1 2010 12:00 AM

'Please Give' wraps complex characters in a deceptively simple story

    For Kate (Catherine Keener), charity does not begin at home
    but guilt begins in the workplace. She and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt),
    own an upscale used-furniture store in Manhattan, one of those shops that will
    sell you a couch just like Grandma used to have for a mere $5,000 or so. To
    maintain their inventory of retro-chic furnishings, Kate and Alex travel around
    the city, cutting deals with the relatives of the recently deceased; these kids
    or grandkids are often eager to dispose of the belongings, and Kate and Alex
    are more than happy to write them a check.

    The lucrative operation is running into trouble, however, as
    writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” begins. Kate is starting to
    feel pangs of remorse that she and Alex make enormous profits from reselling
    someone else’s possessions: They’ve banked enough to buy the apartment next
    door and, somewhat ghoulishly, they are waiting for the 91-year-old current
    tenant to expire.

    pleasegive4_500.jpgStill, Kate is anything but cold-hearted. She insists on
    handing out money to street people and looks for opportunities to do volunteer
    work. Her 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), craves designer fashions,
    but Kate isn’t buying. “I’m not spending $200 on jeans for my teenage daughter
    when there are 45 homeless people living on our street,” she declares.

    In a collection of generally brief, low-key scenes, “Give”
    investigates why certain people can be generous toward strangers and downright
    stingy when it comes to helping out those closest to them, even themselves.
    Radiologist Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) expresses kind concern for the women who
    come to her for mammograms — the movie’s opening credits feature dozens of
    breasts being prepared for examination — yet she has little tolerance for her
    sharp-tongued sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), who tries to hide her insecurities
    about losing her looks by insulting and belittling everyone and everything
    around her.

    Mary particularly detests her grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan
    Guilbert), failing to see they’re actually two of a kind: the grating
    glamorpuss and the senior-citizen sourpuss. Holofcener cleverly points out that
    the people who often have the toughest time getting along are the ones who have
    the most in common.

    “Give” continues several of the themes that marked
    Holofcener’s earlier films, such as “Lovely and Amazing” and “Friends With
    Money.” Abby and Mary struggle with body issues: Mary is addicted to tanning
    salons, while Abby is vexed by acne; Rebecca tries to win over Andra with
    pricey presents and constant attention, only to face the same old scowls and
    curt comments.

    Another carry-over is Keener, an actress supremely
    well-suited to Holofcener’s style of writing. Fussiness and mannerisms have no
    place in Keener’s acting: Time and again, she drills directly into the heart of
    a scene, conveying the necessary information without adding on self-indulgent
    frills or unnecessary commentary. While Kate may seem like a stereotypical East
    Coast liberal, Keener works a few offbeat colors into Kate’s personality,
    including a dash of macabre humor and some beguiling cluelessness that
    undercuts her “give ’til it hurts” attitude.

    Platt is a perfect partner for Keener, expressing Alex’s
    neediness and insecurities quietly and delicately. Kate doesn’t see the signs,
    but Mary does, perhaps because she’s wrestling with the same misgivings about
    herself. Peet is fierce and sometimes laceratingly funny as she demonstrates
    how an unhappy psyche can hide behind a pretty face. Morgan Guilbert is also
    outstanding as the permanently perturbed Andra, who refuses to accept that her
    arthritis will never go away, her sore feet will never really heal and her
    failing eyesight will not be coming back.

    Hall effectively spells out Rebecca’s guarded personality in
    a sort of easy-to-read shorthand: downcast eyes, awkward smiles, closed-off
    body language, a speaking voice that always seems to be a couple of notches
    lower than everyone else’s. She’s the complete opposite of the outspoken,
    ear-bruising Mary, and Hall and Peet generate some genuine familial friction in
    their conversations.

    “Give” has no startling twists or earth-shaking emotional
    eruptions. Its subtle, understated approach and lack of tension may fool you
    into thinking very little is going on. But Holofcener is definitely taking us
    on a journey that will lead Kate and Rebecca (and perhaps Mary, Abby and Alex) to see themselves and the world around them in a new way. Although the action
    unfolds over a relatively short span of time — not more than a couple of weeks — these
    days turn out to be times of transition for each of the characters. That
    Holofcener is able to convey all of this without resorting to typhoons of tears
    or outbursts of anger is quite an impressive feat.