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Review: “Please Give” (2010)

“The guilty think all talk is of themselves.” ~~Geoffrey Chaucer

Kate (Catherine Keener) may not believe that everyone is talking about her, but she feels the eye of every homeless New Yorker trained on her. Those eyes — and her guilt over the financial security her vintage furniture business brings — are a part of Kate’s daily existence; in fact, guilt is her fuel. Guilt makes Kate hand out $20 bills to the homeless, refuse to buy her teen daughter (Sarah Steele) expensive jeans and offer her leftovers to a disheveled man outside a restaurant who turns out to be waiting for a table. She never says as much aloud, but she’s more than willing to shoulder the burden of New York’s downtrodden.

There’s something unsavory about the thought of a well-to-do woman assuming a man is homeless solely because his clothes are wrinkled. A certain amounce of nuance is required to pull off a character like Kate. She has the potential to be self-righteous, a person who delights in martyrdom. Keener sees to it that Kate is not this sort because Keener is one of the few women in Hollywood (Laura Linney is another) who looks like a human being instead of a beauty playing a human being. She has lines around her eyes and a laugh that is not polished. Oliver Platt, who plays Kate’s husband Alex, isn’t often accused of being polished himself. So pairing him with Keener as a couple who make a living buying furniture on the cheap from the relatives of dead people is virtuoso casting. When Kate discovers she’s offered her leftovers to a restaurant customer, not a homeless person, for example, her apology is fumbling but sincere. Their situation may seem ethically questionable, and their habits a bit vulture-esque, but Alex and Kate are so pleasant and well-meaning as to be beyond reproach.

The same is not true of their neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a cantankerous, carping beast of a woman who cannot use the excuse that old age has made her hateful. The exasperated expressions of her granddaughters — Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), Andra’s reserved caretaker, and Mary (Amanda Peet) — tell the truth: There never was a time when Andra was barrel of anything other than spite. Andra notes that she’s choosy about her friends, which sounds more like an excuse for not having any except Rebecca, who’s more like an indentured servant. Andra’s still sharp enough to know that Kate and Alex want to buy her apartment after she dies because this is New York City and living space is a precious commodity. Rebecca and Mary know this too, though Mary, who’s light years less careworn than Rebecca, is the only one with the gumption to ask what the couple point-blank would do with the space — with Andra sitting at the table. And so much of “Please Give” revolves around everyone waiting for Andra to die and Andra trying very hard not to because she’s hornery as hell.

The line between taking advantage of people and seizing on unfortunate opportunities is a fine one in Holofcener’s movies (recall “Friends with Money”), but in “Please Give” it’s treated as a necessary evil of life. Kate feels more guilt about wanting Andra’s space than Andra, or even her granddaughters. She also forms a fragile relationship with Rebecca, in whom she sees a bit of her own tendencies toward martyrdom. But everyone in “Please Give” operates with their eyes open, which makes the film more a study of human interaction in vignettes — the film admittedly lacks cohesion — than drama.  Holofcener allows the resentments and slights — Kate’s daughter (Sarah Steele) is furious when her mom refuses to buy her those jeans — to show. Hall in particular is excellent in her role as the put-upon grandchild who gradually realizes she can’t change Andra by acting as her slave. Kate’s guilt could have been overwrought, but Keener plays it quieter than that. Guilbert gets to have all the fun, but there’s sadness in her too, hints that Andra is well aware she will die alone and barely mourned. It’s hard not to respect a director who’s willing to write a character who owns up to truths like that.

Grade: B+

Quick Pick: “The Soloist”

THE SOLOISTStarring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener

“The Soloist” is a common tale of a decidedly uncommon friendship — that of homeless schizophrenic/brilliant cellist Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and the L.A. Times columnist, Stephen Lopez (Downey Jr.), who plucked him from slumdog obscurity. Ready to run screaming from the theater? Fight the urge, settle in and prepare to be wowed by two of the strongest performances captured on film in 2009 (and it’s only April). Where Susannah Grant’s screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction demand molasses, Downey and Foxx serve up weary self-awareness infused with much-needed bittersweet humor. Downey gets it right with Lopez, playing him as a glib opportunist who uses Ayers as fodder, then decides he’ll save him by moving him to LAMP, a nearby homeless shelter. Watch Downey closely as he drives up to LAMP’s outskirts and you can see those sanctimonious notions get crunched under the wheels of a skid-row crackhead’s shopping cart. That’s fitting, especially considering Downey doesn’t do warm and fuzzy; even when Lopez strikes a real bond with Ayers, there’s no schmaltz. Hooray for small miracles. That goes double for Foxx, who knows better than to re-enact “Rain Main” (perhaps he followed Col. Lincoln Osiris’ advice?). Here, he goes for understatement, which seems like a miracle in a movie helmed by a director hell-bent on drowning us in tragic-sounding symphonies paired with technicolor, self-consciously “artsy” cuts. Boo to that. There’s a meaty story here, and the real miracle is that Downey and Foxx find the rhythm to make that story as tart as it is believable.

Grade: B-