By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 19, 2010 at 6:01AM
With "Please Give," out on DVD today, Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely and Amazing") comes her closest to Frank Capra. The comedy is a kind of light black -- not gray; I mean light in tone, black in subject matter -- reminiscent of "Arsenic and Old Lace." And the themes made me think of "You Can't Take It With You," especially after reading an interview with the filmmaker in which she says the very words of that title. Probably not meaning to reference the play or film, though. There are no great idealistic protagonists in "Please Give," and for Holofcener the ultimate allegiance to capitalism is far more blatant in her films. I said she comes her closest to Capra, not that her new film is really similar to his works. You can get a sense of Holofcener's own conflict regarding materialism and giving (which is represented in "Please Give" particularly through her regular semi-surrogate, Catherine Keener) from that interview, which is with the AV Club:
"Who’s to say what’s valuable and what’s not? I guess I feel like in the end it’s all pretty meaningless ’cause we’re all going to die [...] I know that sounds really negative. But it’s a fact. I experienced the cleaning out of someone’s apartment when my grandmother died. It’s not like she had a bunch of valuable stuff all over her house. But it really pointed to the futility of stuff. You can’t take it with you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it while you’re alive. Why not? But it’s all pretty silly. I fall victim to it. I mean, I want nice stuff too. So I guess I’m poking fun at myself as well as other materialistic people. "
That pretty much sums the film up, as it's about very privileged New Yorkers, one of whom (Keener) is halfheartedly beginning to question the ethics of her business and residential practices. In the former, she and her husband buy up loads of items from recently deceased people's apartments and the resell them at inflated prices in their vintage furniture shop. In the latter, she's done the very thing Holofcener mentions in that quote above, bought an old lady's apartment so that when she dies it can be incorporated into the adjacent space (her own apartment). To counter her guilt concerning these things, she gives large bills to homeless on the street (and sometimes she mistakes regular old black folk for homeless) and unsuccessfully attempts to find places to volunteer.
One scene I would have loved for Holofcener to include in the film would have Keener's character attending some kind of documentary screening, specifically for one of those terrible films that's basically a public service announcement masked as cinema. The kind that play at festivals and have white ladies standing up during Q&As asking who they can make a check out to. The character is totally the sort of person who watches movies like that in order to feel good about herself, thinking that the viewing is equal to actually doing something. Especially if a dollar amount can be affixed to her apology. After watching "Please Give," I immediately considered it an anti-documentary, because it pretty much reminds us that such spectatorial activism is bullshit. "You're not actually helping," it says, "so just go ahead and buy your kid those $200 jeans. You're already enjoying nice things, you're already doing more for your dog (like carrying their poop) than you would do for a poor person in India, and anyway you just can't help all the people in the world."
Oh, and don't trust your husband, because in these kinds of movies he's obviously cheating on you with that girl you thought he was innocently flirting with. None of this is a criticism, though. I love documentaries, but I hate those that are just commercials for causes. And I appreciate the honesty put forth here. I wish not every indie film had to have the husband (or in the case of "The Kids Are All Right," a pseudo husband) committing adultery, but otherwise I like what Holofcener is doing in this one.