Please Give (15)

4.00

A beady female point of view

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener is almost a revolutionary by the standards of modern Hollywood. Her spiky, articulate comedies pay close attention to women; she likes them, sometimes indulges and pokes fun at them, but is always interested in them for their own sake, not because they're attached to this or that man. It's impossible to overstate how unusual this is in an industry that doesn't want to – doesn't know how to – create serious roles for women. Goldie Hawn described the three ages of actress in The First Wives Club 14 years ago – "Babe, then District Attorney, then Driving Miss Daisy" – and not much has changed since.

Holofcener's three features, Walking and Talking (1996), Lovely and Amazing (2002) and Friends with Money (2006), are of a piece, comedies of anxiety and dissatisfaction that put women front and centre, foremost among them the great Catherine Keener, who might almost be her muse. Appropriately, she stars in Holofcener's latest and best film, Please Give, a funny-sad tale of charity and its discontents. Keener plays Kate, a well-to-do New Yorker who worries herself to distraction about society's unfortunates and expresses it in compulsive handouts to street people. She and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a vintage furniture store whose stock is mostly acquired from houseowners clearing out the supposed junk of an older generation. In short, "we buy from the children of dead people".

The profit they make on these transactions sharpens her sense of guilt; so too does their next-door neighbour Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a grouchy 91-year-old lady whose apartment they have bought but cannot redevelop until Andra vacates it – ie. dies. To assuage her conscience Kate runs errands and throws her a birthday party, where they meet the old lady's two grand-daughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who looks after "grandma", and Mary (Amanda Peet), who doesn't. This encounter, where everyone knows the score yet only Mary feels able to tell it like it is, typifies Holofcener's writing; she has a fantastically acute ear for abrasiveness and embarrassment, yet she's alive to the goodness of people whose patience has been sorely tried. Rebecca, for instance, knows that her grandmother is a bit of a witch, but as a radiology technician who checks women for breast cancer (the film opens, startlingly, with a montage of mammograms) she also understands the fear and vulnerability of the ill, and the aged.

The film develops "skin" as its physical and metaphorical motif. Rebecca sees beneath the skin, in both senses, while sister Mary gives facials at a salon and is obsessed with tanning. Kate's 15-year-old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) has a face boiling with zits, and amusingly turns up at dinner with a pair of pants covering her head. She's at an awkward age, raging at Kate for her charitable spasms when she won't give her own daughter 200 dollars for a pair of cool jeans. Character is indicated in degrees of dermatological toughness. Kate is so thin-skinned that almost everything needles her conscience, but when she volunteers for charity work – a retirement home, a Downs syndrome centre – we see how her weepy sensitivity is quite unsuited to "giving". She's a decent person, but she's also a compassion sponge. At the other end of the scale, Andra has grown such a thick skin she no longer hears her own rudeness – even great age does not excuse your reacting to a gift with "What use is this to me?" There's a very sad scene towards the end when Rebecca drives her out to the countryside to see the wonderful motley of autumn leaves blazing across the horizon: Andra, though, keeps her back turned, refusing the loveliness of nature. Like Ben Stiller's malcontent Greenberg last week, she seems determined never to be charmed by anyone, or anything.

The film, it must be said, is not overloaded with drama. Two of the characters have an affair, not altogether plausibly. Someone dies, not altogether unexpectedly. Holofcener depends on the lure of character and feeling to keep her audience involved, and her writing is so confident and incisive that in the end it's no hardship for us to submit. She also happens to be brilliant with actors. Keener, as ever, leads the mood of the film, and makes this flaky, exasperating worrywart very human and watchable. I didn't recognise Ann Morgan Guilbert, despite her distinguished career in TV, but her performance as the unloveable nonagenarian Andra is note-perfect, and rather chilling: she is exactly the sort of old person you never want to be. Best of a strong bunch is Rebecca Hall, who uses her gawky frame and quiet voice to touching effect; she doesn't smile for a long time here, crushed by her own shyness and her grandmother's terminal grumpiness, but when she eventually does it seems all the sweeter for being so hard-won. Her moment of empathy with Kate at the end, suggesting they are sisters under the skin, is a little rainbow after a long emotional downpour.

Holofcener's women are the kind who accept that life is more about failings and imperfection than about having everything you want (cf. Sex and The City); indeed, if Kate had everything she wanted she'd probably expire from the guilt. Please Give is too intelligent and wry to put a gloss on things, and it declines the easy upbeat of an epiphany. If it does soften a little, that's just a bit of grace Holofcener has earned. Few film-makers are as beady on the gap between what people would like to be and what they actually do – and hardly any are as funny.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable