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Please Give

Nicole Holofcener's latest ensembler retains her ear for everyday human pettiness and insecurity.

Kate - Catherine Keener Mary - Amanda Peet Alex - Oliver Platt Rebecca - Rebecca Hall Andra - Ann Morgan Guilbert Abby - Sarah Steele Mrs. Portman - Lois Smith Eugene - Thomas Ian Nicholas

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s decision to follow 2006’s “Friends With Money” with a comedy called “Please Give” might suggest an all-too-timely preoccupation with the current economic crisis. Yet money is only one of the many concerns weighing down her characters — the residents and regular visitors at a New York apartment building — in this latest tart but sympathetic ensembler, which bites off a bit more than it can chew yet retains Holofcener’s unfailingly perceptive ear for everyday human pettiness, frustration and insecurity. Sony Classics release should receive some modest charity of its own from discerning femme-driven audiences starting April 23.

“Please Give” kicks off with a snappy montage of mammograms — featuring screen-filling closeups of breasts of every shape, size and sag level, and hilariously set to the Roches’ version of Paranoid Larry’s “No Shoes” — that not only proves comically rousing but also embodies two of the film’s smartest attributes: a determination to look past traditional Hollywood standards of female beauty, and a blunt acknowledgment of the indignity of old age and the inevitability of death.

The woman administering the mammograms is radiology technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an attractive but introverted young woman who is selflessly devoted to her ornery 91-year-old grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert, supremely caustic). Andra’s apartment is owned by her next-door neighbors, married couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), who run a successful vintage furniture store; they’re casually waiting for the old bat to keel over so they can begin renovating and expanding — a not-so-hidden secret that makes their near-daily run-ins with Rebecca especially awkward.

Cursed with a guilty conscience and a misguided do-gooder streak, Kate decides to break the ice by inviting Andra, Rebecca and Rebecca’s sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), over for dinner. But the evening that follows has unintended effects for nearly everyone involved, particularly Mary, a spa facialist who’s almost as tactless as Andra, and Kate and Alex’s daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), an often temperamental teen struggling with skin and weight issues. These scenes, and many of those that follow, confirm Holofcener’s talent for nudging uncomfortable truths out into the open via dialogue that’s consistently acerbic yet never grating, and only occasionally betrays a sitcom-style polish.

Like Holofcener’s previous pictures, “Please Give” derives its narrative energy less from a series of plotted incidents than from its keenly observed interplay of clashing personality tics and worldviews. Chief among these are Kate’s nagging awareness of her monetary privilege and her frustrated attempts to do something about it, as expressed in a relentless desire to help the homeless, some tragicomic attempts at volunteer work and nagging guilt over the fact that she and Alex largely acquire their merchandise from the recently deceased (before marking up the prices).

But the film also grapples with Abby’s obsession with her body image, Mary’s borderline-stalkerish behavior toward her ex’s new squeeze and, least substantially, Alex’s midlife semi-crisis, which confirms that writing for women is Holofcener’s forte. As becomes clear by the end, the film’s title has less to do with the philanthropic impulse than with the altogether subtler matter of relational currency.

If the characters’ baggage at times feels rather neatly parceled out, the film nonetheless refreshes with its willingness to probe attitudes and ideas often deemed too insignificant, too much the stuff of normal life, to explore in any depth on film. Pic is also welcome for offering no shortage of choice distaff parts, all of which — with the obvious exception of Peet’s shallow, beauty-obsessed Mary — are played with a conspicuous lack of vanity or conventional glamour.

Keener, so deliciously nasty in Holofcener’s “Lovely and Amazing,” is no less engaging here in what is, surprisingly, the film’s least bitchy role. But it’s the ever-winsome Hall whose fine-grained performance impresses the most, largely because her Rebecca is the one least defined by a set of traits as she moves from social withdrawal to a more open appreciation of life’s unexpected little gifts.

Robert Frazen’s editing maintains a simmering comic tension throughout, though some of the widescreen compositions suffer from some slight wobble-cam. Production and set design not only offer a wealth of trendy retro furnishings but demonstrate meticulous attention to specifics of class and character.

Please Give

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Likely Story production. Produced by Anthony Bregman. Executive producer, Caroline Jaczko. Directed, written by Nicole Holofcener.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Yaron Orbach; editor, Robert Frazen; music, Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Mark White; art director, Lauren Fitzsimmons; set decorator, Kris Moran; costume designer, Ane Crabtree; sound, Stuart C. Deutsch; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg; visual effects, & Co.; associate producer, Stefanie Azpiazu; assistant director, Karen Kane; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2010. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- noncompeting.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

Cast: Kate - Catherine Keener Mary - Amanda Peet Alex - Oliver Platt Rebecca - Rebecca Hall Andra - Ann Morgan Guilbert Abby - Sarah Steele Mrs. Portman - Lois Smith Eugene - Thomas Ian Nicholas

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