Nicole Holofcener's fourth feature, Please Give, is a notable rebound from the insufficiently examined self-absorption of her last, Friends with Money. Please Give is not quite Lovely and Amazing — Holofcener's mordant, quasiautobiographical "three sisters" spin — but it is, for the most part, witty and engrossing.
Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are bourgeois grave-robbers, stocking their West Village "vintage furniture" store with mid-20th-century pieces bought from the distracted children of the recently dead. (The haughty attitude of the proprietors meets its match in the suspicion of their customers as to the value — or provenance — of the goods.) Elaborating on their ghoulish realpolitik, the couple has purchased the apartment next door and is waiting for its 91-year-old inhabitant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to expire so that they might expand their domain.
Holofcener's humorous interest in yupscale entitlement and its discontents mark her as a descendent of Woody Allen — indeed, she served as apprentice editor on Hannah and Her Sisters, his most self-consciously Chekhovian piece, as well as a movie her stepfather produced. Holofcener grew up in an Allen milieu (urban, insular, secular humanist); her relationship comedies, like those of kindred filmmaker Noah Baumbach, are largely predicated on class cluelessness and family miscommunication.
Kate and Alex have a chubby, zit-plagued adolescent daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele); Andra is looked after by her grown grandchildren, dutiful Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a lonely radiology technician, and selfish Mary (Amanda Peet), who administers facials in a storefront spa. Briefly brought together to celebrate Andra's birthday, the two families merge with and mirror each other in unexpected ways.
Please Give is neither as unsentimental as it sounds, nor as sentimental as it might have been. The movie is filled with banter, typically concerned with three subjects (money, old age, life in New York). Holofcener can seem as glib as Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers, but she has a far more acute sense of human neediness. Lovely and Amazing would be famous alone for the scene in which Emily Mortimer's aspiring actress stands naked before a lover (and the camera) asking him to critique her physical flaws until, amply cued, he finally validates her specific body issue.
The montage of women undergoing mammograms that opens Please Give shows a similar sensitivity to female self-image, as does Holofcener's compassionate sense of Abby's ugly-duckling plight. Generally, however, Holofcener is a stronger writer than director, with a greater gift for riffs than characterization. Her strongest comic creation is Andra, played by Guilbert (Fran Drescher's grandmother on The Nanny) as an irascible, ignorant, self-assured sourpuss, stubbornly ungracious ("Don't do me any favors"), ridiculously confident ("People thought I was a schoolteacher"), and horrifyingly imperious, as when she calls on the building super to adjust her TV reception.
That poor plain Rebecca loves her grandmother and mean beautiful Mary hates her gives Hall and Peet everything they need to develop their characters. Not so for the reliably estimable Keener, who has appeared in all four Holofcener features. Hers is the toughest part: Kate is a canny business operator paradoxically cursed with a bleeding heart. She criticizes Abby's nascent consumerism and compulsively presses cash on local homeless people (and inevitably assumes that a middle-aged black man waiting outside a restaurant is a street person).
Kate is meant to have soul. Supercompetent, she is too sensitive for the volunteer social work she imagines she should perform, but there's nothing dreamy about her yearning or charming in her weakness. Her liberal guilt is about as convincing as Holofcener's — which may be an example of the movie's perverse honesty.