When Giving Hurts | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

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When Giving Hurts

Nicole Holofcener ponders the pitfalls of generosity in Please Give


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Holofcener understands how hard it can be to give, and she doesn't make it easy on Kate, subjecting her to all manner of comic punishment. Walking home from a restaurant with her family, Kate offers her boxed leftovers to a shabbily dressed man on the street, and he icily replies, "I'm waiting for a table." After buying an ugly vase for next to nothing, she discovers that it's worth $700 and trucks out to the suburbs to return it; the seller is floored by her honesty, but as she's walking away she hears him accidentally dropping and breaking the thing. For the birthday party, Kate buys Andra an expensive box of beauty products, which the angry old woman secretly stuffs down the hallway garbage chute. (Kate sees it later in the building superintendent's apartment.) The most extravagant gestures invite the most humiliating results: Abby tells Rebecca her mother once invited a homeless woman into their apartment to bathe; the woman rewarded them by crapping on their floor.

The most intriguing scenes are those that suggest Kate's sensitivity may actually compromise her ability to do good. Hoping to give of her time as well as her money, Kate volunteers at a retirement home. The woman showing her around urges her to keep her conversation cheerful, because many of the residents are preoccupied with their imminent deaths; Kate can't wrap her head around this, mostly because she's preoccupied with the idea as well. Later she offers to work with children who have Down syndrome, but as soon as she's exposed to them she starts crying. "What are you doing?" the supervisor demands. "It's just so sad," Kate replies. "You should go," the supervisor tells her, with some irritation. For the first time you realize that Kate's generosity might spring from weakness instead of strength, that she may be taking more from the situation than she's giving.

She still comes off better than Mary, her opposite in every respect and her rival for the affections of her husband and daughter. Young, pretty, and tan from her frequent salon sessions, Mary is the sort of person whose harsh judgments of others guarantee her a social edge. She's no sucker: at the birthday dinner she remarks that she hates to hold a door open for someone without being thanked, or even worse, have the next person pass through as if she were a "fucking doorman." This kind of talk captivates Abby, who's at the age when heartlessness passes for truthfulness. When Andra finally expires in front of the TV, Mary tells Rebecca, "She was mean. Why do you think mom took 85 Valium, because her mother was loving and kind?" She's right of course, but that doesn't make Mary any less mean herself—she's just another Andra waiting to happen.

The most revealing moment in Please Give occurs at Andra's funeral service, and Holofcener lets it slip by with so little emphasis that for a while I didn't see it for what it was. The minister delivering the eulogy announces that when Andra was younger, she read to the blind and took part in other charitable activities. This shocks Mary, who turns to Rebecca and mouths the words, "She did?" Rebecca confirms it with a nod, and the fact that she knows this and Mary doesn't says plenty about their relative interest in others. Once upon a time Andra was capable of giving, but somehow, over the years, generosity was ground out of her. This is a movie that asks us not just to give but to give till it hurts—because the alternative may ultimately hurt more.   

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Related Film

Official Site: www.sonyclassics.com/pleasegive

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Producer: Anthony Bregman and Caroline Jaczko

Cast: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Sarah Steele, Lois Smith and Thomas Ian Nicholas