Imagine a life where your largest problem was justifying giving a homeless man $20 rather than buying your 13-year-old daughter a $200 pair of jeans. Where you had to live with the moral dread of making exponential profits off the property of recently deceased elderly people. Or where your crude, tactless husband made daily trips to a downtown spa so he could bang your super-hot next door neighbor. So is the plight of Kate (Catherine Keener) in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, a film that basks in its own tunnel-visioned metropolitan self-masterbation. There’s a good chance anyone living outside the New York metropolitan area will find this film utterly frustrating, as it’s filled with jokes and situations that only hoity-toity upper-class New Yorkers will understand or relate to. Its characters range from self-indulgent and self-centered to vain and vile, its theme—if there is any—is self-serving upper-class pandering, and its plot has all the punch of a lazy Full House episode. Though William Vincent was my least favorite film at Tribeca 2010, this is probably my most hated, if only for its unintentional portrait of a very real, smarmy New York elitism.
Kate’s a vulture—haunts the estates of the recently deceased, buying up old furniture and tchachkas and selling them at an insanely inflated price from within her Greenwich Village-based vintage store. She and her husband, Alex(Oliver Platt), have long been eying their aging neighbor’s (Anne Guilbert) health, hoping to snatch up the apartment she lives in after death, adding it as an extension to their own. Said neighbor’s grandkids, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), are aware of this snooping, but are too preoccupied with resentful affairs and budding relationships to help their poor grandmother out. As the film progresses its narrative whizzles and whirls out of control—Oliver starts sleeping with Mary at her spa, Kate’s daughter (Sarah Steele) wakes up with mountainous zits marring her face and decides she needs insanely expensive jeans to make herself feel better, Rebecca starts dating a fuzzy-headed kid who gets almost no screen time, and Mary spies on her ex-boyfriend’s new lover from afar. It’s a plot stretched too thin over a scant 90 minute runtime—you never get to know or care for any of the characters, and since most of what you see of them ranges from snobbery and vanity to downright cruelty and infidelity, you actually end up hating most of them. Kate’s penchant for giving to the poor could be a psychological reflex for her guilt over selling the relics of the dead, or it could be out of genuine concern; unfortunately, these possibilities are never really explored, and since her major conflict arises when she must choose between giving to the needy and buying her daughter designer $200 jeans—and she ultimately buys her daughter the jeans, mind you—it’s difficult to give a shit about her, left alone feel sypathetic for her.
The humor in this film is derived half from character interactions and half from inner-New York knowledge. There’s a running joke about day-tripping to see “the leaves”, something nobody outside New York’s upper-crust will get because, well, the rest of the world has leaves, and New York’s lower-class doesn’t have the cash or time to take a vacation just to see foiliage. Even the narrative backbone—Kate and Alex’s cut-throat effort to claim their neighbor’s apartment, is a past-time of the New York’s upper-echelon. When Kate discovers that a competitor is buying her items and selling them at even higher prices, she’s disgusted; the great meta-irony of this is that the competitor character is nothing more than an exaggerated version of herself, and her reaction mimics that of the audience. This film is filled with hateful, self-centered snobs leading terrible, meaningless existences. Each of the numerous storylines fizzles out to an anti-climax (or no climax whatsoever), leaving audiences with no questions, no morals, no entertainment, and no happiness. For a film with a title like Please Give, this movie certainly doesn’t—is one of the most clear examples of cinematic self-indulgence and heartlessness I can think of in modern times. Avoid it.