It’s fitting that a copy of New York Magazine figures prominently in a key scene in Please Give, since Nicole Holofcener’s film seems geared to the same superficial, property-obsessed, upper-middle-class sensibility that the magazine peddles on a weekly basis. With one key exception, each of the film’s principal characters is either a dyed-in-the-wool materialist or an aspiring one, and while their guilt at this materialism becomes the movie’s principal theme, Holofcener ladles out just enough easily quenchable remorse to allow the characters to continue comfortably in their acquisitive lifestyles, all the while asking the viewer to join in the smug sensibility that undergirds most of the film’s humor. After all, what good is privilege if it can’t laugh at itself?
Comfortable Manhattan couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) make a living pillaging the apartments of the dead for valuable antiques. Visiting the kin of the newly deceased, they buy up their “junk” for a song and then sell it for thousands of dollars in their shop. Meanwhile, they await the ultimate acquisition, the apartment next door to their own residence, which requires only the death of its 91-year-old resident to complete their purchase of that property and allow them to merge the two units into a single dream apartment. While Alex seems untroubled by the ethics of both the business and the death watch, guilt begins to overwhelm Kate, a woman so torn up by culpability that she begins to adopt ludicrous measures of expiation, such as giving homeless people on the streets $20 bills or volunteering for public service opportunities for which she’s wholly unsuited, all the while ignoring her own daughter’s material needs.
Ah, the guilt of the privileged; would that we all had such problems. No such dilemma exists, however, for the film’s other main character, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the reticent, good-hearted granddaughter of the 91-year-old next-door neighbor. Initially providing a welcome antidote to the rest of the film’s half-celebrated superficiality, as well as some of the movie’s less obnoxiously humorous dialogue (a mammogram technician, she tells a romantic partner that she views breasts as “tubes of potential danger”), Rebecca’s charm and intelligence are undercut by her being too often paired with inferior partners. In the early going we’re forced to suffer through yet another screen portrayal of a grumpy, absurdly frugal grandmother, while in the film’s later stages a dorky, dim-witted boyfriend suddenly brings her a measure of happiness but reduces what had been the film’s only promising character into a relative cipher.
For the rest, it’s the usual assortment of unlikely affairs, uncomfortable dinner parties and observations about upper-middle-class behavior that have something of the ring of truth about them, but then end up feeling contrived through insistent repetition, as when characters continually refer to hundreds of dollars by omitting the zeroes, as if they’re so used to speaking in hundreds that they can just say “six.” Typical of Holofcener’s approach is a strategy of relative materialism by which characters more superficial than the main bunch are trotted out for us to laugh at, thus diverting attention from the fact that Kate and Alex are only one step removed from a similar orientation. When a customer at their shop unctuously declares that a wall hanging would look great at his house in New Paltz, Alex mouths “asshole” under his breath, forgetting that he’s just as obsessed with his own real-estate project. Similarly, Rebecca’s ultra-tan sister, a beauty technician, is derided for her skin-deep concerns (it’s right there in her job description!), but Kate and Alex’s own daughter, a cynical, acne-ridden teen who in another movie would stand as the smart nerd, is here obsessed with nothing more than designer jeans and facials.
Of course, there’s a measure of critique built into Holofcener’s presentation of all this chasing after superficial happiness, but it’s surprisingly disingenuous and ultimately celebratory of the things it claims to criticize. After all, what’s wrong with indulging in ridiculous privilege so long as you acknowledge that that’s what you’re doing, right? It’s a tribute to Catherine Keener’s lightly worn credibility that her inevitable all-out moral crisis feels halfway believable, at least until she returns a valuable vase to its original owner. But whatever gestures Keener—and the film—makes toward undermining her essential materialism go only so far. Please Give is a movie that positions the viewer in a certain privileged viewpoint, then critiques that viewpoint to a degree limited enough not to challenge any of its essential assumptions. And the proof of this is that not only do Kate and Alex move forward with their proposed apartment acquisition, but Holofcener ends the film with that ultimate gesture of maternal love: the purchase of a $230 pair of designer jeans for an ecstatic daughter from the trendiest of downtown boutiques.