Well-intentioned people who don't quite know what to do with themselves are Nicole Holofcener's focus in the terrific Please Give, and once again the immensely talented filmmaker shows an unerring sense of the inner lives of people -- women in particular -- who can't figure out why they're not happy.
The film focuses on a quartet of drifting, discomfited New Yorkers. Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) are prosperous parents of a teenager who sell furnishings they buy from the apartments of the dead (the job sounds more macabre than it really is, or at least this is what they tell themselves). They have also purchased the apartment next door from the elderly grandmother of Rebecca and Mary (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) and are waiting -- quite patiently -- for the cranky old lady to die so they can remodel.
Kate and Alex have all the things we believe should make us happy: a comfortable partner, a smart kid, financial security. But they're dissatisfied. She constantly hands out money to street people. He embarks on an affair. Rebecca works and takes care of her grandmother without much thought to her uneventful life (she doesn't even bother to drive to see the leaves change, a running joke in the film but such a simple pleasure). Mary, embittered by a relationship gone sour, seems only to think about herself.
Holofcener (Friends With Money, Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking) is a master of character study, and she never resorts to overly dramatic scenarios to make the point that we're usually responsible for our discontent. But while Please Give is a film about conscience, it's also slyly funny, with piercing moments of insight and warmth.
The cast is uniformly spectacular, infusing the characters with nuance and complexity. Caustic Mary is more vulnerable than she lets on. Kate wants to help others but feels too much pity for them to be effective as a volunteer; she's as self-centered as the wayward Alex, who turns out to be shockingly sympathetic.
Throughout, Rebecca remains the film's moral center, and when she finally takes the leap to take care of herself, it's a sweet victory. As is Please Give itself.
Cast: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt.
Director-screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener.
Producer: Anthony Bregman.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 90 minutes. Language, some sexual content, nudity. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.