Archive for May 8th, 2010



Please Give is all about getting: getting old, getting zits, getting a tan, getting laid, getting a facial, getting a present, getting a boyfriend, getting cancer, getting guilt—and yet no one in this film gets any satisfaction, except for the fifteen year old girl who finally scores two-hundred dollar jeans.  There is no real giving; the title is sheer irony.  Giving is of two kinds—the potlatch variety, throwing away money to enhance one’s status, or moral giving without self-interest.  Please Give presents a study in acquisition, through an even exchange between two parties.  One person must give up something in order for the other to acquire this object of desire.  For someone to win, someone has to lose.  For someone to live; someone has to die.

The cast of characters is amusing and depressing, normal and mediocre, drifting through life in a decent neighborhood in New York City.  Writer Nicole Holofcener gives her creations just enough redeeming features to make the audience care about them.  Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) and their daughter Cathy (Sarah Steele) live in a decent sized apartment that adjoins another decent sized apartment.  The couple, who collect and sell antique furniture, own the apartment that is occupied by an elderly and mean woman, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert).  Everyone and everything is decent, except for Andra, who will not die and allow the family to break down the walls and create a larger master bedroom.  Rather than moving to the suburbs and finding more space, the couple hovers like a pair of polite vultures, marking time until the old lady to breathe her last.

The ungrateful ninety-year old is cared for by her granddaughters, tall and bashful Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and selfish and sensible Mary (Amanda Peet).  The film is about waiting for Andra to die and free up her granddaughters and her neighbors so they can get on with their lives.  Along the way Alex has a pointless and half-hearted affair with Mary, who gives Cathy a facial for her bad complexion, Rebecca finds love with a much shorter man, and Mary realizes she is a “loser.”  On an upbeat note, Kate, who compulsively hands out money to the city’s homeless while withholding an expensive pair of jeans from her daughter, eventually gives in to Cathy’s desire and the plump little girl struts off into the sunset, wearing two hundred dollars.  Oh the satisfaction of the well-fitted jean.

But the film is really about death. Kate goes to the homes of recently deceased old people whose children want to rid themselves of their parents’ lives.  Kate is in search of “mid-century modern” furniture.  The dead parents in question must have been very sophisticated and literate people to buy such furniture fifty years ago.  Lean and spare, with form following function, the designs came from elite institutions like the Bauhaus and Cranbrook and were scorned by most American families in the Fifties and Sixties.  For the average family, only traditional furniture would do.  Historical reproductions sang songs of home and heart with undercurrents of “cozy.”  Antique reproductions, a contradiction in terms, were far more expensive than real antiques and the genuine furniture made for the era: mid-century. Traditionally styled fake furniture fulfilled the desire to conserve, while the “modern” was too challenging and spoke alarmingly of the unknown—the future.  But the children of the newly deceased know nothing of their parents’ fashion forward frame of mind.  To them, irritated at having to dispose of a house full of unwanted objects, the elegant dining room table is where the family gathered to quarrel, the chair is where mother died and the sofa is where father napped.  The children want none of these memories.

Kate is a predator, a scavenger in the great New York tradition of dumpster diving.  She takes advantage of the children’s inability to mourn, their lack of sentimentality, and their desire to get rid of the last of mom and dad.  The furniture finds are purchased at a fraction of their worth and are refurbished and resold.  But the store that Kate and Alex own is just one step above a consignment shop.  They have a business but no passion; they have a niche style but no real taste.  The couple has no idea how to dress or to act, as we see when an upscale furniture dealer buys a valuable table from Kate who saw its possibilities only dimly.  When she finds the table in his beautifully designed shop, the audience understands that Kate, with her long and lanky hair and rumpled clothes, has less style than the furniture she sells.

The granddaughters of their next-door neighbor, Rebecca and Mary, are equally content to wait for life to happen to them.  Mary has been jilted and spends her life giving facials and squeezes pimples  until something else happens.  She is obsessed with the muscular back of the woman who took her boyfriend away.  Rebecca squeezes breasts under the mammogram machine all day and, although she is kind to the women who own the breasts, she is also immune to the anxiety and discomfort that accompanies such a procedure.  All her compassion goes to her grandmother who raised her and her sister after their mother’s suicide.  We appreciate Rebecca’s uncompromising devotion to her duty when Kate, full of an ill-advised desire to volunteer, visits an old peoples’ home, where the elderly are left to die, alone, without family.  The brief scene is both authentic and heartrending.

We tend to soft pedal the aging process.  The elderly are seen to possess a beatific wisdom and bestow their gentle kindness upon all who encounter them.  Certainly there are wonderful old people who are productive and who possess useful knowledge, but aging and getting old is a long slow process that has no happy ending.  Most people do not improve with age; they merely become more of what they were and cease to rationalize or apologize for their bad behavior.  And that is the good news.  In today’s world, most of us live well past our due date and exist beyond our usefulness.  Children have no need of us; grandchildren outgrow us; our knowledge is outdated.  After a certain point “aging” gives way to dying, an arduous task which is often without dignity and can be humiliating and degrading.

Andra is really the centerpiece of the story.  Andra is angry and for good reason.  She is reduced to a child-like status and is helpless. Of course she feels rage: daily she is embarrassed and shamed.   Rudeness is her way of keeping control.  She complains about everything and everyone and is incapable of saying a simple “thank you.” Anger is her only vengeance on her old age.  Everyone is waiting for Andra to die.  Even Andra is waiting to die.   She brings joy to no one and, like many of the elderly; she has put on her bathrobe and has sat down in front of the television to pass the time.  She clings to one last remnant of who she was once—-the vanity of her red hair. Andra is totally ungrateful for the dutiful granddaughters who take care of her.  Kate and Alex throw her a birthday party, but, perhaps sensing their guilt, she pitches their present down the garbage chute.  She is just too mean to live; but, finally, for no particular reason, she dies, watching TV.  At her funeral, it is revealed that, when she was young, she was an entirely different person.  No one who knew the younger Andra is left to recognize the woman describe in the eulogy.  At her death, she was a mere obstruction to a larger apartment.  In a small coda to this story of passing on, Kate returns—gives—a somewhat valuable vase to a recently bereaved son who thought his mother’s things were mere junk.  He is surprised to learn that the vase is worth seven hundred dollars and closes the door behind Kate.  Kate walks away, guilt assuaged.  We hear him smash the gift.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger