Please Give (15)

Ryan Gilbey on a smart but overly preachy morality drama.

It has been observed that Nicole Holofcener is a film-maker for our times, which may be another way of saying that her work is going to look passé ten years from now. Her latest picture, Please Give, collates various woes assailing the privileged west in the 21st century.

The predominant theme is guilt in the presence of poverty; Holofcener also touches on body fascism, mortality and superficial celebrity culture (well, she was the one who cast Jennifer Aniston as a cleaner in Friends with Money). The picture is like a scrupulously thorough exam answer, but it's short on the animating life force necessary for great drama.

Most of the characters personify a position of some kind. Kate (Catherine Keener) is middle-class guilt on legs: "I want to give something to someone," she says vaguely. She smiles fondly at images of third-world children with cleft palates and can't walk through her Manhattan neighbourhood without pressing money into every needy palm. A less earnest film-maker might have asked whether word of Kate's generosity had spread among the homeless, prompting them all to flock to her block.

Kate runs a second-hand furniture store with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), but she has begun to fret over the ethics of their business, which largely deals in dead people's possessions. A customer brands them ambulance-chasers and passers-by are asking where they find all their stock. These are the voices of Kate's conscience. A designer tells her that old furniture has ghosts and Kate "sees" a dead woman slumped in the chair she loved.

To make matters worse, Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment next to theirs, and can scarcely conceal their impatience for the crotchety tenant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to die. In a delicate scene, played on a knife edge, Andra's granddaughter Mary (Amanda Peet) coaxes Kate into unveiling her renovation plans. It doesn't take much prodding before Kate is on her feet, demonstrating how they're going to knock this wall through here and extend the kitchen over there.

If Holofcener is good at those car-crash moments, she is even better at the everyday tensions and telepathy between spouses or siblings. Her writing hits its truest notes when Kate and Alex are joking privately about smothering Andra with a pillow, or savouring the rumpled cosiness of their marriage. These peripheral scenes are so strong because they are not selling anything, or explicitly working through a theme. Elsewhere, the movie can be as hectoring as the title.

In its structure, you can almost see the coloured cards on Holofcener's office wall, relating to the arc of each character. Mary is an orange-tanned beautician, so it must follow that her sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) conducts mammograms, and sees breasts only as "tubes of potential danger". In the light of Andra's decrepitude and the cancer diagnosis of another character, the occasion of a trip upstate with both women to see "the leaves" becomes oppressively symbolic. (These autumnal reds are spoken of here as though they're the aurora borealis.) Andra's refusal to converse with the superintendent of her block has a grim pay-off that induces in the film an overdose of irony. And Kate's daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), is saddled with more thematic weight than one person should bear: she requests a $200 pair of jeans that becomes an ethical sticking point for the family, and pushes the body-image idea by wearing panties over her face to hide a zit or tucking in to chocolate cake while scouring fashion websites.

Holofcener is a smart writer and a natural with actors - Platt is particularly rich in the sort of roomy role he never usually gets - but her orderly scripts need mussing up. And although she prides herself on resisting resolution, she comes perilously close to concluding that only in our casual kindnesses can we change the world. (When Kate tells Rebecca, "You're a good person," and earns the reply, "Thanks, so are you," this must rank as a low point not only in the film, but in all cinema.) Everything is punched home with a heart-squeezing, string-based score that represents a one-way ticket to Goosebump Central. Holofcener has a genuine feel for people, but she's slick with it. Give her an issue, and she'll give you a tissue.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas