Sunday, July 4, 2010
Most of the problems with Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give—a dyspeptic comedy-drama with little flair for either—can be summed up with a single scene. Kate (Catherine Keener), a vintage-furniture dealer riddled with guilt over her privileged lifestyle, returns a gaudy vase to its original owner because she discovers it is worth far more than expected. The man is startled by the gesture, thanks her profusely, and shuts the door. She walks away fairly glowing. Dimly on the soundtrack, we hear him shatter the vase, calling it junk.
There are two possibilities here. First, that the man is doing something utterly baffling and ridiculous—shattering a valuable vase in his living room just because it’s ugly—simply because Holofcener needs to score points against her characters. Second, that these people are aliens and this bizarre ritual would be perfectly understandable if only we could also breathe their rarified Martian air. Mundane reality, when portrayed so ineptly, becomes science fiction.
The modest premise of the film is that Kate and her husband Alex are upper-middleclass vultures, waiting for their elderly neighbour Andra to die so that they can knock out a wall and expand their apartment. While Kate’s guilt drives her to weird gestures like the vase incident, Alex is more pragmatic about his place in the food chain. Unfortunately, Holofcener tries to develop this schematic set-up (emotional woman versus rational man) with poorly realized complications, like Alex’s fling with one of Andra’s granddaughters. May the movies never again see so passionless and pointless an affair, which will neither echo through the ages nor ever besmirch my DVD player.
So I’ll break it down for you, nice and neat: the cold pragmatist learns to feel, and the sensitive type learns to not, which means everyone learns something, yay for learning (yay!). I’ve learned that it’s a horrible burden to be wealthy, successful, and happy (thank god I’ve dodged that bullet so far, whew), and I’ve learned that the best way to make such an asinine moral palatable is to resort to a lot of weepy, tinkly-piano scenes of characters hugging and telling each other that they’re good people.
I suppose there is some value to pointing out that aimless guilt does little to improve either the world or your own life. But why does a film supposedly hewn so close to life have to spend its last twenty or so minutes wallowing in pure Hollywood la-la-land nonsense? Everyone gets what they want. Kate finds release from her guilt in the joy of others. Alex’s affair ends as effortlessly and painlessly as it began. Finally, the pair buy their daughter some expensive jeans and smile beatifically in a glowing light that suggests they’re about to beam up to their spaceship and return to the planet from which they came. Farewell, friendly aliens! Enjoy your souvenirs!