Anybody who has seen the “I saw you coming” sketches from British comedy series ‘Ruddy Hell it’s Harry and Paul’ will be familiar with the character of the vintage furniture dealer cum vulture. Please Give deviates little from this conception that the second-hand goods industry is the abode of those who buy cheaply from the vulnerable and sell at cost to the obscenely rich.
Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt excel as two sarcastic Manhattanites whose business turns profit from death, acquiring ‘newly-trendy’ furniture from deceased estate. In this commercial arena, quality and price are polar extremes. Their lives unfold gradually in very intimate, sharp spates of dialogue, shot in the few places this family, and their neighbours inhabit. These snippets of exposition are of a very particular rhythm, so that the first act functions almost as an organism; the ensemble cast are the various diseased organs, through which cruel or derogatory banter pulses like a heartbeat.
It is very difficult to sympathise with this set of characters, all of whom compromise their goodwill by habitually directing it towards individuals they can never really be sure will benefit from it. The title, Please Give, hints at the poisonous effect that indulging your inner do-gooder can have if you are only ever moved by pity when acting charitably, not by hope. That is, the bleeding heart cannot offer solace to those in need, no matter how much they give, because they do not place hope or optimism in their donation. They do not expect the recipient to improve their lot, and are blind to the selfish fact that this consistency comforts them.
Perhaps one of the most curious truths that this film illuminates is the changing nature of charity in a commercial city. Whether it is a gifted gesture of love to a close friend, or a crumpled twenty-dollar note thrust into the hand of a homeless person, money is often necessarily combined with true sympathy and altruism. This is not to say that the aphorism ‘it’s the thought that counts’ no longer applies in a corporate world. The thought always will count, but it may take the form of cash, or gifts, just as often as it manifests through gestures of a more ephemeral nature, like compliments, spending time with somebody, or letting a person know they are valued.
The impact of this film resides a great deal in its camerawork. Cropped mid-shots are abundant, small rooms and brownstone-lined avenues give the impression of a life lived in ‘storeys’. Humans are stacked up on top of one another, resenting their proximity, but also relying on each other to fill their lives with, well, life. This is most beautifully illustrated in the title credits; a sweet, bashful montage of the compression of breasts between cold perspex during Mammogram procedures. It seems that the more this fragile, pink-tipped, feminine organ is compacted against the plastic, the less it is able to comfortably fit within the confines of the machine, and the more its natural shape is compromised.
As is often the case in this kind of New York ensemble film, redemption and reconciliation are at hand in the second act. I would suggest in this case, however, that they do not come merely to offer up satisfaction to an audience, but rather to better contour the trajectory of a life lived in what Satre would describe as ‘Bad Faith’. Where truth and action do not speak to one another. This film is riddled with expressions of optimism and hope, but not as a warning against misdirected charity. Rather, all gestures of goodwill should be motivated by a desire to encourage, support and foster improvement. 8.5