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.