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Spare Change

The characters in “Please Give” don't satisfy easy expectations.



Life's tough for yuppies. That was my final thought after sitting through the otherwise engrossing “Please Give,” about the ups and downs of a group of comfortable white people in New York. If I remember correctly, it was nearly the same response I had to “Friends with Money,” writer and director Nicole Holofcener's previous film about the trials of a group of comfortable white people in Los Angeles.

I suspect that Holofcener is a comfortable white person who's spent much time in both cities. Nothing unusual there, and it's allowed the talented filmmaker to study her subjects well. Both films are remarkable for their emotional realism, especially “Please Give,” which creates a group of fictional characters who frequently feel indistinguishable from the real thing. The only problem is the movie's inability to peek outside the lives of these privileged and self-centered people, a failure that lumps Holofcener in with her characters.

The movie centers on Kate (Catherine Keener), who runs a successful vintage furniture store with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), while raising a testy teenager, Abby (Sarah Steele), and waiting for an elderly neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) to die so the family can take over her adjoining apartment. Kate's success gnaws at her, and it's to the film's credit that these feelings sneak up on her and confuse her the way they do, in the form of an impulse to donate time and money to charity.

The movie's essential question is as interesting as the people blithely revolving around it. Should Kate feel guilty about making a profit, or profiting from someone's death? As another character says, that death will happen anyway. Doesn't gain always come at the expense of someone else's loss?

Two perspectives on that question wander in and out of Kate's life in the form of the elderly neighbor's granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), sisters who share everything, from an apartment to genes, except personalities. Rebecca is an introvert who works at a breast cancer treatment clinic in order to help women. (The movie opens with mammograms, striking images of breasts of all sizes.) Mary is a cynical egotist who works at a beauty spa, where she spies on her ex's new girlfriend.

Without being too heavily symbolic, Rebecca and Mary echo the push and pull on Kate in the way they respond to their own lives, especially their grandmother. Rebecca empathizes with the stubborn and frequently frustrating woman, while Mary talks back with shocking candor. Both take care of her but Mary seems to enjoy rattling the old bird's cage, whom she blames for her own mother's suicide years ago.

A birthday party at the center of the movie brings all these characters and themes together, a shining centerpiece of Holofcener's extremely impressive ability to display the subtleties of her character's conflicting and conflicted egos. Whether it's the sympathetic father almost imperceptibly taking a peak down Mary's shirt or Kate's willingness to talk about her plans for her elderly neighbor's apartment out of earshot, everyone always behaves exactly like real people, often uncomfortably so, though the film gives off the constant whiff of comedy.

“Please Give” isn't just a neat collection of clever dialogue. Holofcener unobtrusively connects the dots between her characters, while elevating the film above her other work by drawing men and at least one younger person into her hazardous world of middle-aged, bourgeois women. She also wrings first-rate performances out of the entire cast, essential for a movie that strives to pay attention to so many minute but telling details.

The only problem is when they don't quite add up to something larger. In fact, “Please Give” suffers from a jolting last-act change of direction that hastily replaces all its fretful uncertainties with an upbeat ending. Can all these agonizing questions about morality and competing urges be satisfied with the swipe of a credit card? Surprisingly, “Please Give” seems to suggest something of the sort. Either that or Holofcener is being capricious, which would seem unfair. Having suffered through these people's neuroses, we deserve to see the result.

“I'm so embarrassed,” Kate says when her daughter intercepts a $20 bill on its way to a vagrant. “Please Give” is easy to enjoy from moment to moment, but what it ignores might leave you feeling a tinge of the same. (R) 90 min. **** S


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