Is there a more underrated director than Nicole Holofcener? Since her 1996 breakthrough film Walking and Talking, she’s written and directed a steady stream of witty, smart, female-friendly indie comedies, pulling terrific performances out of Frances McDormand, Jennifer Aniston, Emily Mortimer, and her cinematic alter ego, the DeNiro to her Scorsese, the great Catherine Keener. But she’s never brought up in discussions of our better indie filmmakers, in spite of the fact that she’s more consistently reliable than many of her peers. (Maybe people don’t talk about her because they still haven’t figured out how to pronounce her name.)Her new picture, Please Give, begins (improbably enough) with an opening credit montage featuring tight close-ups of women getting mammograms. The tight close-ups are not on their faces, but on their breasts, most of them not exactly glamorous. In her director’s statement, Holofcener notes, “Mammograms are like life: potentially tragic but really funny looking.” It’s an interesting metaphor, and probably a successful one. But more than that, it sets the table for the film—it knocks us a little off balance, right off the top. In case there are any illusions, this is not some kind of cutesy, faux-Sex and the City “chick flick.”
Those mammograms are administered by Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), whose life consists primarily of working and taking care of her elderly grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Rebecca’s sister Mary (Amanda Peet) sometimes helps out as well, but she’s mostly off in her own orbit. In the apartment next door, we find Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), an upscale couple with a teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) and a furniture boutique, where they resell vintage items at a high mark-up, usually bought for a song from adult offspring of the recently deceased. Kate doesn’t feel right about taking advantage of people, but isn’t quite sure what exactly to do about it, aside from handing out money to the homeless people in front of her building (which she hopes gives her some kind of karmic balance). Oh, and they bought the old lady’s apartment years ago, so that they can expand theirs when she dies; Rebecca is certain she sees in their eyes only one question: “Is she dead yet?”
Holofcener’s screenplay uncoils slowly and deliberately—it’s smart, low-key, and character driven. It carefully establishes the specific personalities in the opening scenes, then slyly slams them into each other to see what happens. The opening scenes are good, but the film doesn’t really pop to life until it puts its six primary characters into the room together, and lets them go to work on each other. They get together for Andra’s 91st birthday party, and the dinner is funny and awkward—both, in tandem and independently of each other (too often, the comedy of awkwardness is long on the awkward and short on the comedy, but this scene does both). These are earned laughs, and Holofcener piles them up, one banging right into the next.
The superior cast helps. Hall is an actor who has been quietly good in several films now (she was Vicky in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost’s girlfriend in Frost/Nixon); she plays plain and mousy in a way that’s credible but not obvious. She also gets several difficult scenes just right, particularly a tricky duet with Keener late in the film. Keener’s been working with Holofcener’s dialogue for so long that the words are like second nature to her—she gets this filmmaker, and fronts the picture with tossed-off, natural ease. She and the always-welcome Platt have an easy, believable relationship; you absolutely buy that this one-time intellectual is now primarily interested in discussing that day’s Howard Stern show (“You know,” his wife tells him, “you used to read books… well, magazines.” “Please don’t ruin my fun!” he replies). But Peet is the spark plug of the picture, with an energy and comic verve reminiscent of that gangbusters breakout turn that somehow made The Whole Nine Yards memorable.
The narrative is compelling, but it’s not in a rush; Holofcener is a confident, controlled filmmaker, and every detail is just right. The running joke about going to “watch the leaves turn” will tickle just about any New Yorker, and I appreciated the choice to go with a teenage daughter who’s plain-looking and has bad skin; further, she’s not clever or insightful, but mostly just awful. Her writing and direction also excels at looking potentially melodramatic situations right in the face, and dealing with them practically—she sets up situations and scenes that never play as dopey or soapy as they might.
Some people complain about her inconclusive endings, but I’m not one of them; I like her ability to find a note and key on it, rather than putting a big pretty easy bow on the story. Real life is messy, and it sometimes has loose ends. So do Holofcener’s films. Please Give may be a touch too bourgeois for some tastes; it deals primarily within the same kind of tightly self-involved New Yorkers that people always complained Woody Allen’s films did. But, to a degree, it’s about that very notion—and some other good stuff, too. “So that was kind of great, right? It wasn’t just me?” I asked the row of women behind me at the screening. They agreed. It’s kind of great.