In the unwritten rules of narrative, every story must fit a form. Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener has chosen the moral fable as her form for her new film Please Give. In this fable, we are introduced to Cate (Katherine Keener), an embodiment of a few key contradictions. She is a furniture salesperson catering to upper-middle class city folks, but can think of nothing better to do than give away money or food to any homeless person she meets. She is a neurotic Manhattanite besotten with enough guilt to impulsively volunteer for causes aiding the sick or retarted, but has no problem buying an dying 91-year old curmudgeon’s apartment, desperately waiting for her to pass on. She is, in short, not a person, but an embodiment of themes; Charity, Guilt and Hypocrisy.
She is joined by a few other representations. Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), the elderly neighbor whose apartment has been bought, is Cynicism. A woman who can’t help but voice her (usually) negative opinion about everything, she has mistreated so many people by her crotchety old age that she has no chance of redemption. Then there are her granddaughters; Rebecca and Mary. Mary, the older one, is Narcissism and Catiness. She has taken after her grandmother in ways she can’t possibly realize, and casually abuses her sister to no end. Her sister, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is something like the moral balance in the story. She works as a nurse who does mammograms at a city hospital. She is shy yet charming and rather sane; lonely but trying to keep the peace with everybody else.
How these characters collide with the three opposing characters—Cate, her Materialist daughter Cathy (Elizabeth Keener) and hapless husband Alex (Oliver Platt) – is intended as the source of development in this story. Throwing two sets of characters together to watch what happens is vaguely theatrical in nature, and perhaps Holofcener crafted her film this way in order to let the actors roam free. They do; one thing that should be said is that there isn’t an unaccomplished performance in the film. Alex, who does not represent much of anything, is the standout character in this feminine film; Oliver Platt plays him as a quiet burn of an outwardly personable man exasperated by his marriage.
The performances themselves, however, ultimately clash with the film’s moral leanings. Cate, for one, has been written as such a ridiculous person that she is impossible to believe—she provides a homeless man with enough money to buy outrageous clothing and apparently thinks it’s cute; she is so righteous in her concern for others that it’s difficult believe that a grown woman—especially one played by the mature-seeming Keener-- could act so grossly politically correct and never have been forced to tone it down. Conversely, the sniggering Mary is so wicked that we lose all faith in her as the force of wickedness in the film. She becomes predictably, boringly mean. Andra provides some cranky humor, but we find ourselves just waiting for her to die, like everybody else. The moral center, Rebecca, remains sympathetic, but what is she left to do that surprises us? Stumble upon good fortune? The guy of her dreams maybe?
If this sounds like a lot of reductionist griping about a film that’s earnestly trying to make a few points about human interaction, then let’s return to the rules of narrative. Every writing teacher will tell you that a character must want something and that at the end of the story they must change. Holofcener abides by these rules, but makes such a point of her characters wanting something that she reduces the film for us. Please Give becomes a chess game of character A wanting something and characters B and C getting in the way. She is so intent on making her characters change, that a single line has to be the turning point for characters who we don’t believe will change anytime soon. Much of the dialogue is overflowing with implication and suggestion; it felt as though a Creative Writing professor should be reading the script and explaining why the various elements work. By the end, when the inevitable “arc” of the story is coming to its conclusion, a teary Cathy has to tell a teary Rebecca; “you’re a good person.” It’s not that I disagree, per se. I just wish these were good people who sprang from a complex reality and not from a writing workshop.