As The Roches’ quirky “No Shoes” plays in the opening sequence of Please Give, writer/director Nicole Holofcener leads viewers through a three-minute, close-up montage of breasts being flopped onto a mammography machine and unceremoniously squashed. No faces or figures make it into the frame, presenting the sort of fragmentary view of the female body that in most any other context would constitute blatant objectification but here reads as a desexualized, intensely vulnerable collage of femininity. These are women on the verge of potentially devastating news, after all, stripped bare, even as the comic vaudevillian flair of the song distracts from the fact.
This is me trying to maturely intellectualize this scene in hindsight. Now let me bow my head, fidget like a kid in trouble, and tell you what I was thinking in the theater. Flaccid mounds sprawled across the machine’s tray, nipples ranging from mangled pencil erasers to the tips of bad bananas, gross! That’s what I was thinking. Trust me, as a supposedly grown-up real woman with her very own pair I write this with no small amount of shame and surprise in my reaction to these unglamorized real-women’s breasts. A deluge of Victoria’s Secret ads and the like (that’s right, the devil made me do it) has trained my subconscious to interject: if you’re going to show us breasts make them pretty and unsquashed! In fact, make them enhanced and airbrushed while you’re at it because stark reality makes me very uncomfortable. And when I’m very uncomfortable about such things it leads me to question my standing as an inherently good person! And just like that, in three-minute’s time, Holofcener effectively put me in the mindset of central character, Kate, before she was even introduced.
Not that I know what Kate thinks about breast montages. I do know that Kate (played by the always brilliant Catherine Keener) and husband Alex (played by the always consistent Oliver Platt) troll estate sales for items they can mark up in their high-end New York City store, that they also purchased the neighboring apartment and are waiting for the elderly woman who lives there to die so they can annex it, and that they have a teenaged daughter (Sarah Steele) who can only feel better about herself in a $200 pair of jeans her mom won’t let her buy. Kate explains to her that $200 goes a long way to help the homeless. Kate’s own $200 jeans are fine, however, because she is a “grown-up.” This is a family rife with such contradictions. And the more Kate can’t manage to look away from the stark realities of the less fortunate and the woman next door and the people selling furniture to her, the more she begins to question her standing as an inherently good person. Because, really, this isn’t so much about boobs.
Please Give isn’t entirely about Kate, either. For all those who campaigned for a Betty White comeback on “Saturday Night Live,” I present you with your new project. Legendary television sidekick Ann Guilbert (from “The Nanny” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) needs some love after her performance as the cantankerous, socially inept Andra, aka the woman in the way of Kate and Alex’s apartment expansion. Who doesn’t love to watch a little old woman in apricot-colored curls and fuzzy house shoes shove a gift box of silk pajamas aside and grumble, “They’re too fancy to sleep in. I’ll save them for a special occasion”? Andra brings out the best in one granddaughter, mammography lab tech Rebecca (played by Rebecca Hall), and the worst in another, Mary (Amanda Peet).
The momentum of Holofcener’s screenplay hinges on the match-up of characters repeatedly straining for pleasantries in unpleasant situations such as Kate and Rebecca with the likes of the filterless Andra and Mary. At Andra’s birthday dinner, for instance, the subject of the apartment expansion comes up, leaving Kate speechless.
“You’ll have to change the tile in there. It’s all covered with mold,” Andra suggests, scrunched-faced, while poking a fork at her slice of cake.
“I’m sure they’ll gut it, grandma,” Mary turns to say to her. “You’ll be dead so you don’t have to worry about it.”
Such moments regularly disallow Kate from ignoring the implications of her actions and in turn spurs Kate’s increasingly overwhelming, and often comic, self-scrutiny.
What she does with her self-discoveries, how she manages her guilt, her uncomfortable truths, and her relationships in the end may raise more questions than answers as to how, exactly, one should best navigate the paths between personal happiness and social responsibility, between stark realities and pleasing constructs. Without dropping any spoilers I’ll just say that I’m not so sure I’m okay with Kate in the end. I walked away feeling that even I had made more progress in the course of Please Give than she seems to have. But, then again, maybe that’s the whole point.
You can watch the trailer for Please Give here.