CINEMA: Give ‘Till It Hurts

please_give.jpgPLEASE GIVE (2010, directed by Nicole Holofcener, 90 minutes, U.S.)

THE GOOD HEART (2009, directed by Dagur Kári, 95 minutes, U.S./Iceland)


The production company behind the new film from writer/director Nicole Holofcener is named “Feelin’ Guilty,” a less-enticing but more direct title for her latest look at neurotic New Yorkers.  Of course the only guilt most American movies are comfortable with is the type that calls for punishment meted out by a cop or a super hero. The guilt Please Give traffics in is the type that privileged New Yorkers might feel quietly within themselves; a sort of indie film guilt.

Holofcener’s favorite leading actress is back, this time Catherine Keener is Cathy, a a guilt-ridden second-hand furniture salesman and mother to a typically disgruntled teenage girl (Sarah Steele). She and her husband Alex (the bulbous Oliver Platt) scan the obituaries for dead folk in nice addresses, then descend on their children to buy the loved ones furnishings for a nice profit. If Cathy is defined by her capitalist guilt, which we see in the way she steadily doles out money to the homeless people she pities, then Alex is defined by his apparent immunity to the emotion. Alex and Cathy’s life is tenuously connected to a pair of sisters, an altruistic x-ray technician Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and her snippy sister Mary (Amanda Peet), queen of the tanning salon.  The sisters’ ninety-two year old grandmother lives in the apartment next-door to Alex and Cathy, who plan to expand into her space once the old lady dies.  Rebecca, like Cathy is wrestling with her own guilt, having a grandmother who thanklessly demands her care, something that Rebecca handles dutifully while Mary grumbles gracelessly.

In her fourth film, Holofcener’s unshowy style remains unchanged: Please Give studies the details of her character’s every day interactions to dig out hints at their motivation.  We see Alex gloat over the high resale value of the items he bought from the clueless kids of the deceased and we watch Cathy as she struggles to volunteer at worthy charities, where her pity gets in the way of truly helping.  Later, when the married couple has dinner with the sisters, Alex hits it off with the bitter Mary over their shared love for Howard Stern, signaling their shared callousness towards the human condition.  They later tumble into bed together, showing that while they lack guilt some dissatisfaction is still ticking within them. Holofcener’s work unspools with an agreeable ease, the dialogue is witty without being over-written, the films are loaded with memorable performances and how rare it is to see middle-aged woman in such fully-developed, unsentimental roles such as these.  Yet, there remains something a little under-cooked about her storytelling; Holofcener paints portraits of modern malaise then backpedals, refusing to stick the satiric knife too deep into her characters or the world they live.  Her pat, lessons-learned endings minimize the problems that she cooks up, none more so than the closing here, where treating a daughter to over-priced jeans stands in as a sign of unselfish love.  Is this Holofcener’s way of pandering to the youth market?  Who knows?  In the end her characters have made peace with nice things and Holofcener keeps things nice, and neither feels  particularly guilty about it.

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French-Icelandic director Dagur Kári surveys his own kooky New Yorkers in his preposterous tall-tale The Good Heart. Only a handful of scenic shots good-heart.jpgwere actually filmed in New York, most of this treacly tale was shot back in Iceland, a suitably fallacious location for an infuriatingly phony fable. Reuniting the stars of 2001’s controversial L.I.E., The Good Heart stars Brian Cox as Jacques, a grumpy barkeep with a bum ticker and Paul Dano as Lucas, a saintly homeless kid whom Jacques meets in the hospital.  Looking for a apprentice who might run his tiny bar after he’s gone, Jacques brings Lucas home like a stray cat, giving him a room above the bar while he schools him in the art of being a surly, no-nonsense bar owner.

I don’t mind that the majority of the shooting took place in Iceland, its idealized, slightly unreal evocation of New York works for its fable-like story. Fables simplify stories in order to get to underlying truths; the problem with The Good Heart is that it simplifies its tale in service of bogus presumptions.  Glaring among the falsity is the character of Jacques himself, whose colorfully chosen encyclopedia of racist and nationalist slurs are part of what makes him lovably unique, and its a quality the people he insults often enjoy, seemingly appreciating Jacques’ honestly. It would be easier to see beyond this character’s shortcomings if writer/director Kári wasn’t so obviously amused at his every expertly-composed racist outburst.

Kári attempts to assure us that Jacques isn’t really racist by showing the Jamaican family he has befriended (the inference being “some of his best friends are…”) and he wants us to cheer on the change of heart that will come from rescuing poor Lucas, who Jacques constantly hectors and treats like a slave.  Cox is a masterful actor and the eccentric Dano gives another of his other-worldly, young Crispin Glover-like performances but Kári never gives us a reason to care about Jacques redemption.  When redemption comes (and there’s never any doubt that it will) it is as if Jacques has sucked the goodness out young Lucas rather than achieving salvation himself.  This may be Kári’s idea of a happy ending but The Good Heart‘s final moment is so unearned it inadvertently comes off like a downer.

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