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.
The lucrative operation is running into trouble, however, as writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” (now playing at Celebration! Lansing) 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 tenant to expire.
Still, 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.” 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.
Platt is a perfect partner for Keener, delicately expressing Alex’s neediness and insecurities. Peet is fierce and sometimes laceratingly funny. 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.
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 earthshaking emotional eruptions. Its subtle 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. That Holofcener is able to convey all of this without resorting to typhoons of tears or outbursts of anger is quite an impressive feat.
For reviews see Cole Smithey´s Movie Week at www.lansingcitypulse.com/movies