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PARK CITY — In “Please Give,” Sundance regular Nicole Holofcener has made perhaps the ultimate New York movie. It makes perfect sense to New Yorkers — if a completely unscientific canvassing of attendees at the Sundance Film Festival means anything — but is a little puzzling for non-Manhattanites. The movie certainly deals in universal situations – conflicts in values, a marital betrayal, teenage uncertainty and the guilt of the privileged class. Yet the film centers on a completely New York phenomenon regarding real estate in crowded Manhattan.
A well-to-do family purchases an adjoining apartment from an elderly woman with the proviso she can live out her life in the apartment, which they will only enlarge and remodel when she passes. It’s rather ghoulish yet common for New Yorkers. From this situation, Holofcener extracts all sorts of moral tales and wry commentary on middle-class sensibilities.
How the rest of America reacts to this intriguing but dramatically muted story is hard to tell. Art houses may welcome this Sony Pictures Classics release, going out April 23.
The title itself is curiously void of meaning. The end credit crawl perhaps reveals an original title, “Feelin’ Guilty,” which makes more sense. It is Catherine Keener’s character that mostly carries this banner as she seemingly feels guilt for every dollar the family makes – and they make a lot.
She and her husband, Oliver Platt, run an upscale vintage furniture/home accessories store. They mostly acquire their merchandise from estates, which is to say the children of dead people, but this is now causing considerable angst to Keener. She compensates by handing money to every homeless person she passes on the street and would love to volunteer to do good deeds only she can’t handle the reality of the disabled or elderly.
The rest of the family is not so obsessed. Well, they have their obsessions, just different ones: her daughter (Sarah Steele) battles with acne while her husband has entered a kind of middle-age malaise.
Meanwhile, the two granddaughters of the elderly woman (Ann Marie Guilbert) over whom the family is conducting a polite death-watch hold ambivalent feelings about the family next door. The nice one (Rebecca Hall) visits her grandmother daily and is pleasant to the couple while the bitchy one (Amanda Peet) is, well, bitchy – to them and even more to her grandmother.
Everyone here is stressed about something but none of their travails seems terribly significant or revelatory about the human condition. Peet and Steele take physical appearances much too seriously. Peet, a spa worker specializing in facials, is a devotee of the tanning salon while Steele obsesses over every zit.
Peet is still reeling from her last romantic disaster, to the point of all but stalking the girlfriend of her ex, while Steele won’t be satisfied unless her parents buy her a pair of $200-plus jeans.
Then the father and husband out of nowhere launches an affair with the spa bitch. Say what? This has got to be one of the least convincing adulteries in movie history. There’s little in it for either party.
Think of “Please Give” as a finely tuned short story with every glance and gesture full of suggestive meaning. Drama is not high on the agenda here. There is a bit of comedy and, briefly, sexual mischief even though it doesn’t look like much fun.
Keener, who frequently stars in Holofcener’s film, is clearly writer-director’s alter ego, so despite the multi-character format the focus tends to fall on her. But one wishes Holofcener had invested more in the other characters and their stories. They are a bit sketchy, seen more in how they relate to and play off of the Keener character than having a full life of their own.
The self-enclosed world of these New Yorkers is very well observed as designer Mark White has made the apartments, streets and businesses all seem to belong to the same small village.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: A Likely Story production
Cast: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Marie Guilbert, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Lois Smith
Director/screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener
Producer: Anthony Bregman
Executive producers: Caroline Jaczko
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Mark White
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Costume designer: Ane Crabtree
Editor: Robert Frazen
Rated R, 90 minutes
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