Please Give

Once upon a time, it was widely accepted at all levels of American society, at least above the very lowest, that girls should be raised to be what were called “young ladies.” Exactly what qualities this category of persons comprised varied along with changes in the wider culture, but so long as young-ladyhood remained a social ideal, it included ideas of sexual modesty coupled with personal and social graces thought to be desirable in attracting and keeping a husband. It was a often a fine line between attractiveness and modesty, but all girls were taught to walk it. ‘Tis now more than 40 years since the lady was killed off in an avowedly political act by a new generation of feminists who saw the conventions and manners that went into the ladylike ideal as a form of oppression by an unjust masculine power-elite. Like most political progressives, the feminists determinedly closed their eyes to any non-oppressive reasons why there might have been ladies in the first place, with the result that post-feminist women, delivered from the old social necessity of being ladies, have often found themselves bemused by the new social necessity of not being ladies. What were they supposed to be instead? Men?

That bemusement is at the heart of the Sex and the City phenomenon, about which I will have nothing further to say here. But there are many other and more subtle cultural and cinematic illustrations of the ways in which the instincts and impulses that would once have been channeled into ladylike behavior have had to be suppressed or turned in upon themselves where they have not been enthusiastically politicized. Women of the elite classes, in particular, tended to become neurotic in characteristic ways, many of which are on display for our inspection in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, a funny and at times touching but ultimately unsatisfying movie about the sense of malaise and unhappiness that lingers among privileged American females who are not Sex-and-the-City-style glamorpusses living fabulous and fabulously fantastical “lifestyles.” Please Give is Sex and the City for real people.

Mainly it is about Kate (Catherine Keener), a Manhattan antique-dealer who, in partnership with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), specializes in the domestic furniture and bric-a-brac of the mid-20th century — which, whether significantly or not, also happens to be the period of the demise of the lady. Among the ways in which the ladies of that era were expected to confirm their ladyhood was a certain amount of charitable work on behalf of those not fortunate enough to belong to the classes from which ladies were drawn. Now, of course, it is seldom called charity, but as “volunteering” to “work with” the physically, mentally or socially “challenged,” it is still around, and Kate has a yearning she scarcely understands herself to get “involved” with such work. Only she finds she can’t. Her all-embracing compassion for the world’s victims becomes so overwhelming whenever she is required to get close to them that she retreats to the no-longer ladies’ room to weep.

This compassion begins to extend even to those from whom she and Alex buy their merchandise, mostly the children of old-folks who, having acquired their furniture fifty or sixty years ago, are now dying off. The children have no idea what it is worth. It looks like useless junk to them, and they are glad to have Kate and Alex take it off their hands — even when they know it can be sold at a large mark-up to a growing army of collectors. Kate is starting to feel that she is taking advantage of these people. To add to her guilt, the family have already bought the apartment of the old woman(Ann Guilbert) who lives next door to them and so are waiting for her to die in order to knock through the walls and expand their own place into hers. Kate and Alex have a 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), with skin and weight problems and a chip on her shoulder. She is constantly being embarrassed by her mother’s generosity to beggars in the street. So, on occasion, is Kate herself, as when she offers money to a scruffy-looking black man who disdainfully informs her he is waiting for a table at a swanky restaurant.

Andra, the old lady next door, has two grand-daughters, one good, one bad, whom she had to take in when their mother committed suicide some years before. Now the girls live together in another apartment and visit grandmother to help her with the things that have become difficult for her, including her shopping. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the good one, is a mammography technician who does most of the work of looking after Andra — not that Andra appears the least bit grateful. The bad grand-daughter, Mary (Amanda Peet) is a beauty consultant at a “spa” and appears as eager for her grandmother to die as the neighbors are. On one hilarious occasion, Kate and Alex have Andra and the grand-daughters over for dinner, and Mary asks them, in front of her grandmother, what are their plans for the old woman’s apartment. They try awkwardly to change the subject, insisting in the sort of mannerly way that the ladies of Andra’s youth might have done that they have hardly even thought about it, but Mary in the name of honesty plows ahead: “They will gut it. But you will be dead, grandma, so you won’t care.”

There you have the movie in essence. Hardly anything happens in it. Alex has a brief affair with Mary; Rebecca may or may not have found a boyfriend. Grandma dies, as expected. Throughout, the women are haunted by the spectres of lonely death, breast cancer, family instability and indiscipline, suicide and the putative sufferings of those who lack their advantages. As a result, Kate and Rebecca live in a more or less constant state of depression while Andra, Mary and Abby are all more or less constantly angry. Here, Ms Holofcener appears to be saying, is the life of women today. Or at least of women who belong to the class who would once have been expected to be ladylike and now are expected not to be. None of them can figure life out. And nor, apparently, can Nicole Holofcener. Depending on how compelling a bit of data you find that, you may enjoy this movie.

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