Please Give, 91 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 9 Sept 2010.

By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer

(This is my review as  published in the September 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Here’s a film for the modern urban-dweller with a conscience. It asks the question: how can we live an ethical life in the big city in the 21st century? It’s a small film in many ways, but it has something important to say. It’s funny, and wise, and a lot like the films Woody Allen used to make.

Kate is a forty-something businesswoman living in New York City with her husband Alex. Kate is played by the marvellous Catherine Keener, from Being John Malkovich (Jonze 1999) and Capote (Miller, 2005).  Alex is played by Oliver Platt, recently seen in Frost/ Nixon (Howard, 2008) and various TV series. Kate and Alex run a successful furniture retail business, buying and selling hip mid 20th century furniture. They have a 15-year-old daughter called Abby (newcomer Sarah Steele).

The family lives in an apartment in the city, but they want to expand their living space, so they have bought the apartment next door from their neighbour. But she is in her 90s and has no intention of moving. Kate and Alex have to wait until she dies before they can get on with their extensions. This puts a strain on their relationship with the neighbour, Andra (Ann Guilbert, best known as Millie the neighbour from that ancient TV program, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and her dutiful granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, from Vicki Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008)). Rebecca thinks Kate is a vulture.

Mild-mannered Rebecca is a radiology technician, who gives women mammograms. The opening sequence may make you think you’ve entered the wrong cinema. It is a montage of breasts and mammography. Although the scene seems incongruous at first, it has resonance later when you realise that this is a film about a group of very ordinary people, struggling with the problems of daily life.

The final character in this superb ensemble is Rebecca’s sister, Mary, a good-looking young woman with an addiction to tanning (she works in a beauty salon). Mary (Amanda Peet from 2012, Emmerich, 2009) is not as caring of her grandma as Rebecca is. Truth be known, Grandma Andra is a miserable old sod: the sort of person who tells you you’ve put on weight rather than saying hello, and who cannot accept a gift without asking “What will I do with that?”

Kate feels bad about waiting for Andra to die, but that’s not the only thing she feels guilty about. She can’t walk past a beggar without giving them a large sum of money. She even gives a transvestite street-person a Chanel lipstick. This appals her daughter Abby, who is trying to convince her mum to buy her an expensive pair of jeans, and can’t believe the amount of money Kate gives away to strangers.

Kate’s also naïve in business, being ripped off herself, while at the same time ripping off clients who don’t know the value of the goods they sells her. Even the nature of their business is questionable: as Alex puts it, “we buy furniture from the children of dead people”. She tries to assuage her general, ill-defined guilt by volunteering, but that’s a disaster too. Her daughter resents her. And she may or may not know that Alex is cheating on her. How can she deal with all these problems? She lives a very comfortable life, but she’s depressed and uncomfortable.

Please Give is not a visual feast, but it is a feast of questions and ideas, with wonderful characters and performances. Its director, Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, 1996, Lovely and Amazing, 2001, Friends with Money, 2006) grew up in New York, and her stepfather, Charles Joffe, produces Woody Allen’s films. So she knows her milieu well.

In an interview with Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times, Holofcener said her movies “…are a series of small moments that build incrementally to… a bigger small moment.” That’s true, but often I prefer a bigger small moment to a smaller big moment.