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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Please Give puts normal life onscreen
The daily show
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A fine, quiet, compassionate film.
A fine, quiet, compassionate film.

I hope that when the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer died earlier this year, you observed the occasion by digging into his oeuvre. He made engrossing, delightful films, deceptively low-key comedies that chiefly concern the day-to-day problems of talkative adults. Compared to what mostly hits our screens, not much happens in Rohmer films: small triumphs, small disappointments. But his films resonate powerfully because, well, most human living is about small triumphs and small disappointments.

Writer and director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give is a fine, quiet, compassionate movie in the Rohmer mode. It concerns two New York families drawn together for a reason that's perfectly straightforward, but also fundamentally horrifying. The vintage-furniture dealers Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), partners in life and business, are waiting for their cranky, elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) to die so they can knock down her wall and expand their apartment. They talk in matter-of-fact terms about the transaction. Andra gives the couple tips about the bathroom tile, which they'll need to do something about. When she's dead.

Death hangs over Please Give - there are glimpses of ghosts - though the tone is mainly light. Kate and Alex's business is predicated on death. They buy their furniture cheaply from recently deceased people's middle-aged children, who don't know the value of what they're selling. They're ambulance chasers, as someone says. That doesn't bother Alex. It bothers Kate, who tries to expiate her guilt in volunteer gigs that never seem to get beyond the job interview. She also gives lavishly to homeless people, which enrages her 15-year-old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). Abby thinks the money should go toward the $200 jeans she covets.

Andra is looked after by her granddaughters, the glib beautician Mary (Amanda Peet) and the unhappy mammogram technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Rebecca's job is the occasion for one of the most remarkable title sequences I have seen, a close-up montage of breasts - all shapes, all sizes - being positioned for cancer scans in a mammography unit. Please give, the film says, and is there any greater gift than mother's milk? But as Rebecca notes, in one of the script's many finely wrought jokes, due to the nature of her work she doesn't see them as breasts. They're "tubes of potential danger."

Holofcener gets wonderful work from her performers, especially Keener, who has appeared in all of Holofcener's features. Keener conveys great warmth in this role, but also a studied ambivalence, nowhere more so than in her interactions with Abby. (Parents of 15-year-olds may recognize that ambivalence.) Also particularly memorable is Peet as the tart-tongued, bourbon-swilling giver of facials, who loathes her grandmother and, thanks to tanning-bed sessions, maintains her skin at a precise shade of orange.

I like what Holofcener reveals about these characters in details that seem carefully chosen and also carefully unheralded. Kate is seen reading a book by Sarah Vowell, known for her understated, intelligent work on public radio. (Vowell makes a cameo appearance.) Alex, on the other hand, extols the radio work of shock jock Howard Stern - who, we learn, trimmed his pubes on the air. Then there is the recurring image of a dented can of juice, and the solemn Buddha statue gazing at an illicit love affair taking place in a salon called Skintology.

There's an autumn-leaves motif that strikes me as slightly heavy-handed (Rohmer used a similar device in Conte D'Automne), but otherwise Holofcener is very deft in her choices. I'm especially moved by the decision, late in the film, to place much emotional weight on 15-year-old Abby. She is despondent: about what her parents have done, about death, presumably, about being 15, presumably - and, the proximate cause, about a really lousy skin peel. Yes, Holofcener is unafraid to show a common sight rarely seen in cinema: a teenager with bad skin.

In a summer of metallic superheroes and the Sex and the City ghoulfriends, how lovely to see a movie about real people.

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