Please Give is a mellow comedy from Nicole Holofcener that makes some big ideas feel pretty light but never simplified. Catherine Keener—always good but never better—plays Kate, an Upper West Sider who owns a mid-century modern furniture store with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt). We spend some time in the airy store with Kate and Alex, but just as much accompanying them on their reconnaissance trips, where they—as Alex glibly puts it—"buy from the children of dead people." As Alex, Platt is quick and very funny; he doesn't have much to work with, but that's just because Holofcener has focused more on her fully drawn female characters, which is hardly a bad thing.
Throughout the movie, Kate gets increasingly icked-out about her furniture scavenging, not only because she could be (and is) accused of being an ambulance chaser but because she frequently deals with sellers who don't know the value of their parents' stuff. At home, Kate and Alex—who have bought the apartment next to theirs in hopes of renovating—are, in effect, waiting for their elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert, hilarious) to croak. Andra's two daughters, the caring and modest Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the prickly, self-centered Mary (Amanda Peet), have different takes on Mom's neighbors: Rebecca resents them, while Mary couldn't care less.
As the lives of the two families intersect, Holofcener is able to make a few minutes of throwaway small talk into a witty examination of the nature of guilt, what it means to be honest or the complexities of charity. She is aided in no small part by her actors, especially Keener and Hall. The unspoken tension between them is always present but also downplayed, and the dynamic their characters share gives the film a very touching, totally believable moment in Kate's apartment in the second half of the movie.
Maybe to assuage her feelings of guilt, maybe because she truly empathizes, Kate gives to panhandlers compulsively. But when it comes to giving more than money, she can't get past how sad she finds those she'd like to volunteer for, and she's rendered helpless. Tellingly, Kate twice misunderstands a stranger's situation, thinking it to be much worse than it is. These touches, which point to critical aspects of Kate, keep Please Give from feeling too much like a movie about rich people's problems.
Meanwhile, Kate's teenage daughter Abby feels that maybe she should get one of the 20s that Kate hands out to panhandlers, or at least a pair of decent jeans. When they go on a mother-daughter shopping trip, they get in an argument because Kate thinks every pair Abby tries on looks good. Maybe Abby is being ungrateful (she'd rather have a pricier pair), but she has a point when she tells her mother, "If you think these look good, you must think I look like shit all the time."
Not much really comes of the argument, dramatics-wise: The next time we see Abby and Kate together they are getting along. But pushing tension to climax isn't the point, and Holofcener is admirably unconcerned with typical conflict-based story structure. Rather, she uses dialogue to poke around at the ideas and multiple sides of the issues that arise in the conversations she's written for her characters.
Is Abby being ungrateful? Should teenagers expect their parents to fix their image issues by buying them clothes? Then again, Kate has plenty of money, and the jeans would help her daughter out a little, so what's the big deal? Why is Kate so dismissive about helping her daughter find a good pair, thinking every pair she tries on is fine? Does she really think that Abby looks like shit all the time? Almost every exchange of dialogue in Please Give brings up at least this many questions.
Holofcener is probably good at depicting these kinds of conversations because she doesn't seem to be sure of the answers herself. Occasionally, this approach feels meandering, like she's bringing up little issues just because she's curious about them and refusing to resolve anything. When she does attempt to resolve the jeans storyline toward the end of the film, it's more confusing than conclusive. In her debut film, Walking and Talking, she uses another pants purchase as a key element of a rekindled romance, and she benefits from playing it more for laughs than significance.
It should be said that while Holofcener is a master of dialogue, her cinematic grammar could use some work: She hasn't graduated from the bland look of '90s indie comedies, and she often shoots in an awkward full shot that subtracts from the interest of what's happening in her talky films. But she makes dialogue look so easy and has the lives of her characters intersect so organically that it's not a serious handicap. By exploring relationships rather than dissecting them, Please Give opens up some complicated questions while remaining funny, breezy and—most important—honest with itself.