Well, I’ve got my first candidate for Best Supporting Actress for 2010: Ann Morgan Guilbert, who plays Andra, the 90-year-old obstacle to the happiness of a disparate group of Manhattanites who range from the utterly selfish to the overly selfless. Not only does she not drop dead for their convenience, she refuses to be sentimentalized, or caricatured for cheap laughs, and there’ll be no mitigation of her nastiness, her resignation, or her wisdom. She embodies some of the reasons why Nicole Holofcener is one of the dozen or so best directors in America, and why Holofcener’s new film is so funny and heartbreaking.
Please Give | Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener | with Rebecca Hall, Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Ann Morgan Guilbert, and Lois Smith | Sony Classics | 90 minutes
Interview: Nicole Holofcener. By Peter Keough.
Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), however, don’t quite see Andra that way. They own the apartment next to hers, and Andra’s obstinate refusal to kick the bucket has blocked their plans to buy her property and expand their own living space. It’s an awkward situation — not that the couple have any qualms about profiting from the dead. They make their living selling antiques (mostly of the 1950s vintage) that they buy up at cutthroat prices from the estates of the newly deceased. “We buy from the children of the dead,” as Alex bluntly puts it. These survivors, probably relieved to get the old codgers off their hands, hardly mind.
But the couple’s daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, as one of the screen’s more convincing adolescents), cheerfully describes her mother as a “vulture.” And Kate feels worse every time she bumps into Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), Andra’s attentive granddaughter, at the elevator. Not even Kate’s gestures at charity — passing twenties to pet panhandlers, for example — make her feel better. She can’t forget that just beyond the pampered complaints of her world lies an unlimited sea of human misery about which she can do nothing — except feel guilty.
Rebecca, meanwhile, also harbors complicated feelings about her curmudgeonly and unyielding grandmother. She dotes on the old lady’s needs and endures her unthinking abuse. But it’s not as if she had much of a life otherwise. She’s the quiet one at the medical office, where she works as a radiological assistant performing mammograms (a montage of which opens the film, destroying from the outset all illusions of female vanity). On the other hand, her sister Mary (Amanda Peet) — who is prettier and bitchier and is trying hard to be utterly insensitive and superficial — has no problem telling grandma what a miserable person she is.
And who isn’t, in this film? Some try harder than others to find happiness or goodness or a human connection. For the most part, their efforts backfire or go flat or involve pettiness and treachery. But on occasion, they achieve small triumphs and satisfactions that are trifling and ephemeral but make all the difference. Few filmmakers can depict such moments with as much poignance, truth, or hilarity as Holofcener.
And they are achieved without sentiment. In one scene, Kate volunteers to help some special-needs kids — perhaps the group most flagrantly exploited by filmmakers looking for cheap pathos. Not in this case. They’re playing basketball, and they invite Kate to take a shot at the hoop. “If you try and fail,” one kid counsels her, “you try again.” Kate takes a shot and is reduced to tears. You might be too.