Sunday, May 23, 2010
Everything In Balance
The title of Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Please Give, perfectly sums up its preoccupations. A functional society depends (perhaps more than it should) on the charity of its better-off participants. Productive relationships and interactions demand we give of ourselves emotionally and intellectually. But more coldly and mundanely, just about everything depends on our continued willingness to spend, to carry out our moral duty as consumers – if this stops, everything stops. And if we simply ignore our own needs, and fail to feed our dreams and desires (however ill-founded they are), we’ll never carry out that consumerist duty as fully as we should. Self-indulgence and altruism, in other words, are hopelessly intermingled. If you find a workable place on the spectrum, so you’re warm at night and don’t cry yourself to sleep, then that might be the best you can hope for.
Holofcener explores all this, and more, through an unusual and highly productive structure. A middle-aged couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) make a good living by scooping up furniture bargains from families of the recently deceased; they’ve also bought the apartment next door, but can’t proceed with their expansion plans while the cranky 91-year-old tenant keeps trucking along. Keener’s character becomes increasingly guilt-laden at this life, trying in part to compensate by small acts of charity (and not particularly focused ones) and then by stepping up to more committed volunteerism, at which she’s ineffective because of her excessive empathy with the problems of those she might help.
The old woman relies heavily on her two granddaughters – one of them sympathetic and tentative (Rebecca Hall), the other colder and seemingly more in control, but (of course) screwed up underneath (Amanda Peet). The set-up allows for almost boundless productive interaction, and it’s amazing how much Holofcener packs into a mere hour and a half. It’s not much of a spoiler to say the climactic scene turns on feeling happy about buying an expensive pair of jeans, which could easily be seen as a mere moral surrender, but in this context actually feels like a step forward. If we’re going to fall short of our higher ideals, as we probably are, at least we can tend to our family and localized happiness while we’re going about it.
This may not be the most challenging line of investigation ever launched, but compared to the pure drivel of most commentary on modern-day lifestyles, the film is the proverbial breath of fresh air. It lacks a certain spontaneity, carrying a calculated air about it, but it’s intelligently and organically funny throughout. It’s also very plainly a film about how all of this affects women, not men (Platt gives a good performance, but playing an essentially weak and opportunistic character), and Holofcener mischievously broadens the net by opening her film with a montage of breasts undergoing mammograms, and subsequently devoting considerable time to acne anxiety, dating woes and the like. Peter Howell in the Star, consequently, calls the film “thoroughly nasty,” adding it “could almost be a horror movie, given its emphasis on death and decay” – he records spending much of the time wondering who in the movie “wasn’t either thoroughly appalling or pathetic.” Which of those adjectives, I wonder, best applies to a grown man who’d counsel fellow adults to spend their money instead on Iron Man 2?
Please Give is Holofcener’s fourth film – they arrive at four or five year intervals. I can’t actually remember a thing about her first, Walking And Talking, except that I really liked it (there’s a review for you!) Lovely And Amazing, however, was a remarkably comprehensive chronicle of feminine issues and hang-ups, with an already legendary scene in which Emily Mortimer’s character stands naked to be critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character. There’s a cringe-inducing melding there of actress and role – something even more pronounced in another key character: an overweight young black girl whose behavioural problems feel uncomfortably embedded. Lovely And Amazing often seems to be catering to psychotherapists more than to movie critics, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting edge-of-mainstream films about women.
Friends With Money was another structure of multiple female viewpoints, most prominently involving Jennifer Aniston, playing a woman who quit her teaching job to work as a maid. This opened up an important new investigative avenue for Holofcener – how poverty defines and limits the place of women. But overall, she seemed content to observe and very lightly parody, rather than to engage in any kind of diagnosis: the movie was a series of softballs, contriving a happy ending for Aniston that will be denied to 99.999% of the maid population.
Please Give is a much greater success I think. But I also think there’s a ceiling to how successful it could ever ultimately be. I may have over-praised Sunshine Cleaning last year, simply for being an honest portrayal of getting by in hard times of limited opportunity. It stood out because American movies seldom show domestic poverty, except as a breeding ground for drugs and murder, or as a springboard to some kind of turnaround narrative. Relative affluence, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be analyzed or explained: it’s the assumed default state, against which you can explore deeper preoccupations. It’s a bit of a tired paradigm – even if you’ve never set foot in an enormous New York apartment, you sometimes feel via the movies as if you’ve lived half your life in one. I’m not saying Holofcener should try to be someone she’s not – that would never work – but, even allowing for what’s fresh and distinctive in her work, her creative personality is in many ways overly conventional.
Drag Me To Hell
I also watched Sam Raimi’s horror thriller Drag Me To Hell, which came out last year. Here you have a young bank loan officer, focused on looking tough for her boss, who turns down a weird old woman’s pleas for more time on her mortgage. As moral transgressions go, this is even milder than what Keener’s character agonizes about in Please Give – it’s just a matter of contract, and the old crone already had two extensions – but the lesson is that even third-rate sins sometimes attract first-rate retribution. In no time at all, the poor girl is being terrorized by what Howell would call “thoroughly nasty” afflictions. It’s an enjoyable creation for sure, played at such lightning speed that the mythological claptrap doesn’t have an opportunity to get too portentous. It’s bad news for elderly ladies though. Even more decisively than Please Give, the movie can only be interpreted one way: have someone else deal with them, and if that doesn’t work, get the hell away from there.