Director: Nicole Holofcener
In Please Give, the characters struggle with emptiness or guilt, and often latch onto superficial relief for their problems; they may be bored with themselves and looking for quick fixes to make them feel important and needed. For instance, let's look at Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a middle-aged couple who own a furniture store where they sell mid-20th century pieces. The way they acquire their goods is by showing up at the homes of people who've recently passed away and buying the furniture at a bargain price; they then resell at thousands of dollars in profit, because their customers think that ugly 1950s end tables are trendy. Recently, they've also purchased the apartment of their cantankerous next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert); she's over 90, and they're waiting for her to die so that they can break down the walls between the apartments and renovate.
Kate feels guilty about what she sees as a ghoulish way to make money: hovering around people until they pass on so she can snatch up their property, and possibly cheating their relatives by neglecting to tell them how much some old, seemingly worthless furniture will sell for.
Not that she's planning to give up her business, or give up her plans to turn part of Andra's apartment into a laundry room. She tries to ease her nagging guilt by giving to people, whether it's giving money to a homeless person (or a person she thinks is homeless) or giving her time to a group of senior citizens and people who have Down's Syndrome.
Because she's focused on punishing herself with this guilt and isn't trying to connect with the people she wants to help, her charitable efforts tend to fall flat. Her heart's somewhat in the right place (or twitching in the direction of where the right place might be…?), but her uneasiness with herself, self-absorption and excessive pity get in the way of her ability to understand the people she's trying to help. Her husband, on the other hand, isn't bothered much by guilt over anything, and her teenaged daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), looks at her mother's flailing efforts to help others with exasperation; she's also convinced that a pair of designer jeans will help her feel better about her acne.
As for the old neighbor, Andra, who isn't about to die to make life more convenient for Kate and Alex, she has two granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), who live together. Of all the characters in the movie, Rebecca is the kindliest and most genuine; there's also an undefinable sadness about her, and she has a tendency to close herself off from other people. Initially, it seems that she lives in Mary's shadow, as Mary is tanned, confident and apparently unconcerned with anything but herself. But Mary's attitude is mostly a mask for smallness and loss.
Many of the joys in the movie are fleeting moments the characters catch at in passing: a view in a park, an old chair that carries the imagined imprint of a previous owner who enjoyed it before she died. Their lives are stitched together of little moments, rich with personal significance, and what one person considers inconsequential becomes a source of triumph or shame for another. They have moments of honest, uncomplicated pleasure that are beautiful, unclouded by their neuroses or unhealthy expectations. The filmmakers handle them with a mix of sympathetic understanding and gentle mockery.
It's interesting how different characters wrestle with selfishness. They may see their own selfishness as a wholly bad quality, requiring constant self-flagellation to atone for (but not too much, not enough to really hurt beyond low-level angst), as if incoherently introducing some pain into their lives will make them better people or ease other people's misery. They may see selfishness as a shining armor, protecting them from other people and allowing them to use others without feeling anything. (What does it even mean to be selfish when you have a deeply screwed up sense of self? What are you attempting to protect or shore up?) They don't make an honest examination of their own and other people's needs and desires. They have trouble nourishing themselves (with the exception of Rebecca, who seems to get better at tending to herself, which also makes her stronger, more clear-sighted about other people, and more insightful about what they need).
What do these characters really want to give to themselves, and what do they really want to give to other people? What are they capable of?
*All images link back to their sources (NPR and Flixster Community). 1/28/14: I also made some revisions to flesh out my thoughts further on this movie, as I got to thinking about it again.