Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Good Reason to Laugh Amid Life's Grind

Sarah Steele and Catherine Keener in "Please Give." Photo by Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

WITHOUT planning to, I saw the most delightful film last night at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

In “Please Give” a Manhattan couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) buys a neighbor’s adjacent apartment. The catch is that they must wait until the elderly lady (Ann Guilbert) dies before they can occupy it. In the interim, they and their teenage daughter make an effort to try to get to know the neighbor and her two granddaughters.

A leitmotif in “Please Give” is aging. A grandmother who has lived out most of her life. A teen experiencing the growing pains of youth. A husband who is having a miniature midlife crisis. A callous granddaughter’s indifference to the elderly. A caring granddaughter and radiology technician who befriends the women to whom she gives mammograms. Old furniture and knickknacks appreciated by some and carelessly discarded by others.

As director Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money”) observed during a Q&A after the film, “aging is happening all around us.”

The film is also about what can unfold when circumstances throw people together. Upscale furniture store owners Kate (CK) and Alex (OP) make an effort to befriend Andra (AG) and her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). It is awkward going at first. After all, they are waiting for the old woman to die so that they can knock down the wall for the big expansion, a fact that Rebecca reminds Andra of more than once.

To break the ice Kate and Alex throw a birthday dinner for Andra. It’s a delicious example of the comic and dysfunctional aspects of the family dynamic at work. The couple’s teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), late to table and wearing panties over her face, bonds with undiplomatic Mary around the latter being honest about and offering to help with a huge zit that has taken up residence on the former’s nose.

After dinner Andra is presented with a cake with a lone, large candle on top. When she struggles to blow it out an impatient Mary does it for her, and everyone cheers as if Andra did it herself. When Andra’s asked her opinion of her birthday cake she says with monotone honesty, “It’s dry.” The gift of what appears to be scents are not her brand, she informs Kate. Rebecca, who is understandably wary of Kate and Alex, thanks them. Later, Andra drops her gift in the rubbish shoot. Though not a success, the dinner marks the beginning of easier relations between the two camps.

“Please Give” has a strong and likable ensemble cast. The players have good chemistry, and none of the acting is awkward. It has an organic feel, which adds to the enjoyment. These are the kind of people you’d want to have as friends, even Mary who is good underneath all of her bluster and bluntness. Kate would make a great best friend, though she would need a good talking-to about her guilt over doing well and having much in a city where so many have so little. Really? How many New Yorkers attempt to lay $20-dollar bills in the hands of the homeless, albeit admirable the gesture?

The characters are New York and specifically Manhattan archetypes. In fact, “Please Give” is shot in the Manhattan apartment that inspired the film. In a case of taking a page from one's own life, NH used the experience of a friend who bought the apartment of an elderly neighbor to inform the ethos of "Please Give." As fate would have it that apartment and the building seemed a perfect location for the film shoot.

It does our hearts good to escape life’s momentary troubles to smile or laugh. “Please Give” provides that escape. It is a light and frothy entertainment that has no higher pretensions or aspirations. And that is at the heart of its appeal.

“Please Give” will have a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival at 3:45 p.m. today at Village East Cinemas. Visit for all Tribeca Film Festival information and venues.

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