Many reviews of Nicole Holofcener films open with the standard criticism that her characters are mean–which is the sort of accusation that, if it took place in a Nicole Holofcener film, would hardly elicit a shrug. Early in her latest, Please Give, one character asks, “What if somebody said something like that about you?” The other responds, yawning, “They probably already have.”
There’s a futility to meanness that pervades Holofcener’s films. It is not the kind of chiaroscuroed meanness that crops up in most summer blockbusters: it’s not a device that keeps the plot moving in a brisk and assured trot, like a Rube Goldberg device that concludes with a shark tank. Instead it’s a dense muck that prevents characters from making sincere connections with other people around them, and it’s seeped so thoroughly into the fabric of their personas that they can’t even begin to scrub it out. In its own way, it’s even more powerful than the hyperbolic meanness of a supervillian, because it is stingingly similar to the meanness that we encounter in — and sometimes even spit back into — our everyday lives.
Please Give, Holofcener’s fourth film, takes well-worn notions about giving and receiving, and lingers on them long enough that they begin to wobble, as if placed under an inch of water. At the center of the film’s modest orbit is Alex, played by Oliver Platt, and Kate, played by Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all four of Holofcener’s films, and functions in them as the Jean-Pierre Leaud to her Truffaut: a refracted self portrait, ever musing, ever growing up. Kate and Alex live in New York and own a vintage furniture store, which is stocked with items they’ve taken from the apartments of recently-deceased elderly people, bought from clueless relatives at a fraction of their “worth.” (Value is another concept that wobbles under Holofcener’s lens.) Hovering around them are other characters in varying states of emotional isolation, dealing with problems whose value and personal resonance the people around them can’t fully grasp. Kate’s teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) grapples with self-esteem problems that stem from a scene-stealer of a zit that is at one point described as “almost cystic;” Kate’s neighbor Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) struggles to relate both to her blissfully happy co-workers and her callous younger sister; Rebecca’s grandmother Andra confronts the frustrations that come along with her declining health. And all the while Alex and Kate wait around for next door neighbor Andra to die so they can buy her apartment, knock down the walls and get the laundry room they’ve always faintly wanted. Walls do come down in this segmented world, but only after the person on the other side is good and dead.
Nearly all of these characters live in the same cramped apartment building, but their physical proximity belies the fact that they’re unaware of even the most basic information about their neighbors. At one point, Kate and Alex argue about whether or not a downstairs resident is in a wheelchair. She’s not, they find out eventually, but only after Kate — cheery to the point of being patronizing — says to her, “It’s good to see you’re feeling better.” “I was never sick,” the woman replies, rightly insulted. Although there’s a lot of surface meanness in this movie, (the particularly petty, spray-tanned venom of Amanda Peet’s character gave me shuddering middle school flashbacks) it also shows how some well-intentioned words can be harbingers of meanness too. When they’re chosen carelessly, they reveal a stinging disconnect between how people think of themselves and how they’re seen by others. As Abby tries on a pair of jeans that she doesn’t like, for example, Kate dismissively tells her daughter that they look fine. Hurt, Abby snaps, “You must think I look like shit all the time if you think these look good.” There’s a passage in Jacob’s Room where Virginia Woolf describes the meditative Mrs. Jarvis “heaving a sigh, think[ing] to herself, ‘If only some one could give me…if I could give some one…” But she does not know what she wants to give, nor who could give it to her.” Her preoccupation with the act of giving evokes an anxiety so crippling that it reduces poor Mrs. Jarvis’s stream-of-consciousness to stammering ellipses; Kate does not fare much better. Her desire simply to give overwhelms her with so many choices — but what to give? and who to give it to? — that it actually prevents her from giving anything at all. She visits a retirement home, she Googles children with cleft palates, she attempts to play basketball with a group of disabled teenagers, but the results are always the same: she becomes so overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s wrong with the world that she becomes completely helpless – to herself and to others. The turning point finally comes when she learns to make seemingly minute changes in the very places she has never thought could matter so much, the places within the small scope of her own orbit. She returns an antique vase, even though she’d be able to sell it for a lot of money. She gives the daughter the jeans she wants, though she doesn’t understand why she likes them. And, most tellingly, she’s able to connect with Hall’s character through a simple verbal exchange. “You’re a really good person,” she tells her at the precise moment when she needs to hear it; and the giving is reciprocated: “So are you.” The film reminds us something that writers and readers know all too well, that words are often the best kind of gifts.
Holofcener thankfully does not turn Kate’s change into a familiar cinematic spectacle – we’re not given a bloated, sun-dappled montage in which she realizes that she can change the world. Instead we’re given hints that she, as well as some of the other characters, are beginning to understand how to change smaller things around themselves. While Please Give is a showcase for no fewer than half a dozen excellent performances, perhaps its biggest merit is that it manages something that seems all but impossible in Hollywood these days – it is a film about women that does not make a big, phony Ya-Ya Sisterhood-caliber spectacle of the fact that it’s about women. As she did in her other modest masterpiece, Walking & Talking, Holofcener lets her female characters speak — sometimes quietly, sometimes caustically, but always articulately – for themselves. There are far too few American women making movies right now, and there are far too many people who see the false dichotomy designated by Kathryn Bigelow’s brute force and Nancy Meyer’s cashmere escapism as their only possible expressions. Nicole Holofcener gives us the rare, welcome gift of something else.