New York story

Do the right thing? Please Give examines the everyday agonies of liberal guilt

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Sarah Steele and Catherine Keener in "Please Give"
PHOTO BY PIOTR REDLINSKI

FILM The central characters in Nicole Holofcener's new film, Please Give, Manhattan couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), display a fluency in the language of large round numbers that is occasionally disturbed by bouts of self-inflicted sticker shock. The proprietors of an up-market vintage furniture store — the hunting ground of interior designers and affluent nesters with a taste for midcentury modern — they troll the apartments of the recently deceased, redistributing the contents at an astonishing markup that occasionally leads to soul-searching exchanges like this: "How come you feel OK about this?" "Because it's OK." "OK." Whether or not it's OK, clearly it's a living, since the couple has purchased the entire apartment of their elderly next-door neighbor (Ann Guilbert). Waiting for her to expire so they can knock down a wall, they try not to loom in anticipation in front of her granddaughters, the softly melancholic Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and the brittle pragmatist Mary (Amanda Peet).

Holofcener has entered this territory before, examining the interpersonal pressures that a sizable income gap can exert in 2006's Friends with Money. Here she turns to the pangs and blunderings of the liberal existence burdened with the discomforts of being comfortable and the desire to do some good in the world. Kate's hand-wringing, while reflexive, keeps her up at night, and as she ably acquires the furnishings of the dead, she suffers crises of conscience about preying on the ignorance of their bereaved but busy adult children. Unfortunately, her penance is often embarrassingly misdirected. While her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) suffers the less-abstracted agonies of bad skin and low self-esteem, Kate offers her leftovers to a black man waiting outside a restaurant for a table, mistaking him for a homeless person, and presumptuously weeps over a group of developmentally disabled teenagers playing basketball.

In scenes such as this, the film capably explores the unexamined impulses of liberal guilt, though the conclusion it reaches is unsatisfying. Like Holofcener's other work, Please Give is constructed from the episodic material of mundane, intimate encounters between characters whose complexity forces us to take them seriously, whether or not we like them. Here, though, it offers these private connections as the best one can hope for, a sort of domestic grace accrued by doing right, authentically, instinctively, by the people in your immediate orbit, leaving the larger world to muddle along on its axis as best it can. (Lynn Rapoport)

PLEASE GIVE opens Fri/7 in Bay Area theaters.

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