Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Please Give

More gentrified than edgy, affluent Manhattan neighborhoods like the Upper Westside and the Village proper remain bastions of kneejerk liberalism. Reflecting the insular world view of its subjects, Nicole Holofcener’s mild satire, Please Give (trailer here), screens today as part of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, just ahead of its imminent Friday opening in New York.

Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment of their elderly neighbor, the thoroughly unpleasant Andra. As soon as she dies, they can start remodeling and expanding into her space. If truth be told, they can hardly wait for the mean old lady to go, but they pretend otherwise to keep up appearances.

To assuage their guilt, they try to befriend Andra and her two granddaughters, the mousy Rebecca and the superficial Mary. The results are definitely mixed. Andra is as caustic as ever, but for truly inexplicable reasons, Alex starts cheating on Kate with the much younger Mary, who would be attractive if it were not for her jaundiced looking fake tan.

Give is supposed to be a cutting statement on guilt. As vintage furniture dealers, Kate and Alex make their livings scoring bargains from the recently bereaved. To compensate, she ostentatiously gives to the panhandlers in her neighborhood. Yet, whenever she tries her hand at legitimate volunteer work, she chickens out, because old people are creepy and the intellectually disabled make her uncomfortable. Give presents this as one of life’s ironies, whereas most Americans, who are natural volunteers by inclination, will find her hang-ups rather nauseating.

Indeed, one of the greatest problems of Give is its lack of ironic distance. The comedic potential of its rich underlying premise, the Manhattan apartment Death Watch, should be nearly foolproof, yet Holofcener lets it die on the vine. Instead of mercilessly skewering the hypocrisies of well-heeled Manhattan liberals, she presents a bland comedy of manners that is only occasionally amusing. It is also wildly inconsistent in tone veering between neurotic comedy in the Woody Allen tradition and peculiarly upper-class melodrama, with a random dash of fantastical expressionism thrown in to further muddy the waters.

While Give features an intriguing cast, they are largely squandered in shallow and annoying characters. Rebecca Hall probably fares the best as the essentially decent granddaughter, since she is somehow able to scratch out an arc of character development. In contrast, it is sad to watch Catherine Keener saddled with Kate’s woefully overblown angst and insecurities.

Despite a few memorably pointed lines, Give is an overall mish-mash. Holofcener might indeed accurately hold up a mirror to a small segment of the City’s population, but its focus is too narrow to hold much cultural currency with audiences living west of the Hudson River or east of Fifth Avenue. It screens again today (4/28) during the Tribeca Film Festival and opens theatrically in New York this Friday (4/30) at the Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square.