In the comedy Please Give, Manhattan's most generous woman lives next door to the planet's most ungrateful old lady.
Kate (Catherine Keener) isn't a large-scale philanthropist, but that's only because she doesn't have a fortune. She and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), live comfortably by reselling vintage furniture acquired cheaply from the recently deceased. Kate mitigates her guilt about this with questionable acts of altruism. She hemorrhages $20 bills whenever she encounters panhandlers, guilts her teenage daughter about the extravagance of $200 jeans, and looks for volunteer opportunities that sap the energy out of her marriage. Kate follows the motto "Give Till It Hurts," without noticing that it hurts those closest to her.
Next door lives a witch. Andra (Ann Guilbert, a regular on the old Dick Van Dyke Show) is a joyless crone with a heart like an olive pit. Her condo adjoins Alex and Kate's, and they agreeably run errands for her while waiting for her to die (they plan to buy her place, knock out the wall, and expand.) They cross paths with Andra's granddaughters, sweet, patient Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and vain, grumpy Mary (Amanda Peet). Alex can't help noticing that Mary is, on the outside, a very beautiful person. Complications ensue.
Please Give is the fourth feature from writer/ director Nicole Holofcener. She once worked for Woody Allen, but her sensibility is closer to Albert Brooks, only with more empathy for women. Her movies resemble life: Great cast, bewildering plot. She tells morality tales that don't push a specific agenda. Holofcener prefers gently satirical questions to facile answers.
There are moments of sharp humor. When neurotic Kate applies as a helper in a retirement home, the manager shrewdly sizes her up, concluding she'd bum the old folks out. But Holofcener doesn't make her characters into buffoons. More often, she invites us to see with bemused compassion.
A strong cast helps Holofcener free her characters to be as complex, conflicted, and contradictory as the people we actually know. Keener and Platt shine as a nice pair of people in a committed, flawed, tepid marriage. They speak in the telegraphic shorthand that people use when they've been together for ages. Their scenes, little minuets of guilt, resentment, and forgiveness, unfold in a natural, unforced rhythm. Even their caustic neighbor Andra has her humanizing moments.
Holofcener hasn't made a great movie yet, but she hasn't created any bad ones, and her gentle humanism is to be cherished.