Nicole Holofcener’s filmmaking career has been both plagued and propelled by the never-ending parallels drawn between her body of work and that of Woody Allen. But if we’re allowed to genre-hop into the realm of literature, Holofcener’s storytelling and character-writing doppelgänger is Lorrie Moore.
Moore built her career as a short storyist but landed herself on a number of last year’s Best lists with her first novel in 15 years – A Gate At the Stairs. She spins darkly comedic tales about “women in love with the wrong men, girls at odds with their mothers,” as one reviewer for the Guardian put it. Like Moore’s understated stories, Holofcener’s nuanced, dialogue-centric movies explore a world inhabited mostly by affluent, often middle-aged white women whose petty neuroses and conceits compete for attention with the universally sinister.
Her latest, Please Give, is a film that’s launching Holofcener out of cult idolatry and into mainstream critical acclaim; it represents her sharpest effort at dovetailing the white girliest, first worldly problems with the morbidity of death and isolation. And in Lorrie Moore fashion, the success of Please Give lies in Holofcener’s now-trademark ability to caulk these horrors, both big and small, with hilarity.
Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), earn an incredibly successful living in Manhattan buying up the furniture of the recently deceased and selling it in their store for double, sometimes triple, the price at which it was purchased. Kate cannot seem to reconcile the luxuries of her socioeconomic status with the misfortune of others; guilt-driven, she forces cash into the hands of every beggar on her street while simultaneously preying on the aging and dead for her own livelihood. “You’re a vulture,” Kate is told by her daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who is ill-tempered by virtue of being locked in the adolescent throes of acne and weight concerns. In addition to low-balling the family members of the dead, the couple has bought the apartment of the crotchety neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert), who hasn’t even died yet – but judging by her outspokenly miserable distaste for everyone and everything, will probably fare better in the cemetery. The elderly woman can do nothing but groan that a piece of cake is too dry or a handsome man too short.
For their preemptive scavenging, Kate and Alex are despised by Andra’s granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a tireless caretaker but emotionally fatigued radiologic technician in her mid-twenties whose mother committed suicide when she was young. Rebecca’s quiet and selfless devotion to her hostile grandmother is tempered by the brazen neglect of her faux-tanned sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a self-obsessed cosmetician who rounds out the film’s gaggle of contemptuous but ultimately empathy-evoking females.
“You’ll be dead, so you won’t have to worry about it,” Mary tells her grandmother during a birthday dinner hosted for the entire group at Kate and Alex’s apartment, where the uncomfortable discussion of the renovation of the old woman’s apartment unfolds. This scene, the only time when all major players convene, is the film’s best. Enormous levels of tension are built around the characters’ forced cordiality but underlying spite toward one another manifests itself in absurdly funny one-liners and awkward interactions. After throwing a fit about the state of her skin and refusing to join the dinner, Abby emerges from her bedroom with a pair of panties over her face and sits down at the dinner table. When she lowers the underwear and exposes a monstrous blemish on her nose, she kindles an alliance with the otherwise loathesome Mary, who’s the only one willing to acknowledge that Abby’s skin looks awful. Flirting with the youthful and manicured Mary, Alex is consistently quick-witted and cheerful, even toward Andra, who can only ever manage to shout things like, “You’ve gained weight!” at him.
Like Moore (whose stories sometimes center around similarly unpleasant but comedic dinner parties and family gatherings), Holofcener strays from the severe arc of a traditional storyline and uses a calmer ebb-and-flow to develop her characters, who usually remain works in progress and aren’t guaranteed emotional salvation by the closing credits. This technique has earned both women praise for their borderline-eerily realistic depiction of female friendship, sisterhood and human interaction in general.
Aside from similarly styled characters and plots that juxtapose the petty with the heavy, what places Holofcener and Moore in a distinguished category side-by-side is their honest willingness to sometimes allow a first world problem to win out over a grim absolute. In Please Give, only minutes after Andra is found dead in her apartment, Mary — tearlessly warding off any sense of obligation – tells Rebecca that she’s going to return to her shift at the spa. Rebecca shrugs and lets Mary leave, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that guilt, especially in the absence of true remorse, does not triumph over all.