"Your guilt is warping you," sighs one character to another in Nicole Holofcener's Please Give. In fact, it's guilt that gives life, shape and depth to this uncommonly perceptive film.
Holofcener was born in New York, and many of her characters feel tied to that city's streets. That's certainly true of Catherine Keener's Kate, who embodies the movie's complex contradictions.
A successful furniture dealer in Chelsea, Kate obsessively frets over whether she's cheating her suppliers or customers. She'll freely empty her wallet for anyone who asks. And though she's excited to expand into the apartment next door when her elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) dies, she cringes at discussing her plans with Andra's granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet).
Meanwhile, Kate's husband (Oliver Platt) adores her but is having an affair with Mary. And their teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) is both comfortably dependent on her parents and perpetually irritated by them.
Holofcener's New Yorkers live within a uniquely localized cocoon of anxiety, dissatisfaction and desire, and it's no surprise that she once worked for Woody Allen. But she also brings an unusually empathetic insight into female insecurities. Every worry, from a fear of aging to the search for a decent pair of jeans, is given respectful attention without becoming a full-blown neurosis.
Such fine-tuned observation requires the ideal interpreter. Keener has always been Holofcener's muse, and once again offers the sort of fully crafted portrait that reminds us how shallow most movies really are.
Flaws, of course, always stand out in an otherwise smooth facade. While most of the cast is spot-on, Platt is distractingly miscast as an aging stud. And Holofcener's scalpel can be too sharp: When someone is more unkind, or self-indulgent, than necessary, the film briefly loses its essential compassion.
In those moments, we wonder if we're being encouraged to judge, rather than observe. But then Keener brings us back, with an unexpected grace note that rebukes anyone too quick to criticize. These characters have their failings, yes, but they are balanced by a humanity that is both lovely and amazing.