Room Over the Garage Double Feature!

Please Give (dir. Nicole Holofcener, 2010)

Please Give is Nicole Holofcener’s saddest film.  By no means lacking the observant humor and trenchant scenarios she has become known for scripting, the film embraces bourgeois depression more openly than her previous works.  This is seen most literally in the role of Kate, played by Catherine Keener.  Keener has had leading roles in all of Holofcener’s films, and her straight-forward portrayals of vaguely Bohemian, decidedly privileged and acutely insecure women communicate the self-aware hypocrisy and pathos at the heart of Holofcener’s approach.  That Keener’s Kate has many scenes in which she drops her neurotic questioning and knee-jerk defensiveness for constant admissions of guilt and bitter weeping says a lot about the heavy-hearted maturity of Please Give.

Kate and her husband Alex (a terrific Oliver Platt) sell vintage furniture in a trendy Manhattan boutique, and essentially stalk from afar the neighborhood’s dying elderly as a means of scoping new merchandise.  The hawk-like couple also have their sights set on their aging neighbor, Andra, or more accurately on Andra’s apartment which, once vacated, will be the second half of Alex and Kate’s newly renovated flat.  All of this scheming isn’t without a troubled conscience for Kate, or without reproachful glances from Andra’s reclusive granddaughter, Rebecca (an understated, magnificent Rebecca Hall).  Rebecca’s sister Mary (Amanda Peet, showing off her comedic chops) could care less about the inevitable fate of their grandmother or the apartment, but she does manage to weasel in a short, self-loathing affair with Alex.  Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s daughter has a face full of pimples and a closet sadly bereft of $200 jeans – in other words, the definition of Teenage Girl Hell.

As in Lovely & Amazing, Holofcener manages to elegantly survey the gnawing if not particularly grave insecurities of women from an entire range of ages, managing to neither judge these women nor let them off the hook for their faults.  This time the dark halos of loss and conscience hover incurably over Holofcener’s characters, making Please Give the most melancholy and quite possibly the best of the director’s films.

Friends with Money (dir. Nicole Holofcener, 2006)

“Failure to launch” has become an increasingly popular subject for filmmakers over the past decade, from directors working within the confines of large studios to first-timers submitting their projects to such enabling film festivals as Sundance and South by Southwest.  To those unfamiliar with this occasionally interesting but predominantly tiresome genre, the “failure to launch” film focuses on a character or group of characters who, though of grown-up age, have failed to mature in accordance with the societal standards laid out for them.  Usually these characters are men and usually they make us laugh. And usually they can afford to fail at launching.

All of this lead-up illustrates the ways in which Nicole Holofcener’s film, Friends with Money, is such a clever riff on the “FTL” phenomenon.  The film boasts an array of interesting female characters and an impressive selection of top-notch actresses (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack), though the primary focus is on Olivia, a once-ambitious and now pot-smoking maid played with endearing restlessness by Jennifer Aniston.  Though Hollywood has a morbid fascination with underachieving female characters (the neglectful, deadbeat mother being a common one), rarely do these characters have sympathetic traits and rarely is their underachieving benign.  Olivia, on the other hand, seems to be the sole sufferer from her lack of drive, and her “suffering” is mostly comprised of condescending remarks from her affluent friends and general boredom with her life situation.  She’s also very funny, in an appropriately pathetic way, as she pathologically collects samplers of her favorite eye cream, obsessively calls her ex-lover and sits through a painfully unrewarding first date.

Is Olivia to be commended for being a bit of a loser? Of course not, and Holofcener doesn’t set her up for congratulations.  Is Holofcener to be commended for portraying a world in which women, like humans, are a little slow on the road to adulthood?  Definitely.  In a particularly intelligent scene, Holofcener adds a crafty little aside about the mixed messages women receive in terms of their perceived achievement level.  Olivia’s boyfriend, a slimy personal trainer played with suitable dimness by Scott Caan, gives her a kinky maid costume to wear while she performs her daily chores (and while he watches).  It seems that, for the failure-to-launch woman, a subservient profession can be both a point of embarrassment and of fetishism.  Dutifully feather dusting, Olivia asks with some annoyance, “When does this turn into sex?”