Should scavengers feel guilt? Obviously they don't in nature - that whole circle of life thing.
But the modern jackals and vultures - culture vultures, if you will - of Nicole Holofcener's deliciously understated Please Give do have a conscience. Or at least that's the problem confounding one of them, Kate (Catherine Keener), who can't quite tolerate her own affluence.
On the one hand, she's exceptionally good at what she does. She and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a successful vintage home-furnishings store in Manhattan - and Kate is the one who best knows how to get grieving or uninterested families to sell the furniture of the recently deceased cheaply enough so she'll make a huge profit when she resells it at her store.
Yet Kate can't pass a homeless person on the street without digging out at least a $5 bill - and an apology. She embarrasses her teen-age daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) by giving to a homeless man who regularly camps out on their block. Her impulse can lead to embarrassing encounters when she mistakes a man waiting in line at a trendy restaurant for a panhandler.
Yet she and Alex covet their neighbor's apartment. Andra (Ann Guilbert) is in her 90s and has to be tended to daily by her granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Rebecca is a dutiful radiologist, the polar opposite of her sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a facialist who only ever visits Andra grudgingly.
In fact, Kate and Alex have already made the deal to buy Andra's apartment in order to expand their own place, after Andra dies. Which makes Kate feel uncomfortable around Rebecca and Mary, for fear they regard her as - yet again - a scavenger, eagerly awaiting their grandmother's death.
Holofcener builds characters through small incidents and encounters, as she crosses the wires of these two families in unexpected ways. Mary, the most self-involved character, winds up administering a disastrous facial to Abby, who is at a particularly self-image-conscious age - and Mary also becomes entangled with Alex.
Kate, meanwhile, feeds on her own guilt: She's too focused on getting a bigger apartment - or getting a big mark-up on a newly purchased object - instead of on the death and loss associated with either. Yet, in Holofcener's deliciously imbalanced world, Kate also discovers that there are competitor stores out there playing the game even more ruthlessly than her - paying less, selling for more - and can't decide whether to feel smugly self-righteous or like a conscience-stricken loser.
Keener finds great humor in a woman who is growing exasperated at her own passive-aggression, perhaps because it no longer works the way it once did, except against her. She and Platt make an amusing couple, with her pointed honesty always at the ready to puncture Platt's sometimes manic exuberance.
Hall is Keener's opposite: unconfrontational but not a pushover, someone with standards but also flexibility, raised to be nice rather than honest. Hall makes her at once guarded and naïve, willing to engage a potential suitor (Thomas Ian Nicholas) because he's the grandson of one of her patients (Lois Smith).
Leisurely about revealing itself, even as it deals with these characters' daily tensions and stress and their struggle to cope, Please Give is a movie that dares to take its time and to take a miniaturist's pleasure in getting the details right.
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