Bechdel Test Canon: Please Give
I love Nicole Holofcener’s focus on distinctly female experiences in films that are funny, chatty, and deeply personal. This also serves her well as a television director whose credits include Parks and Recreation, Six Feet Under, Gilmore Girls, and Sex and the City. But the endings to Holofcener’s films often frustrate me.
Take 2006’s Friends With Money. Overall, I like the film. The ensemble is great. Though Frances McDormand’s character comes off a bit shrill, petty, and homophobic, she made me empathize with a premenopausal woman succumbing to paranoia over her husband’s sexuality. Catherine Keener crackles as part of a screenwriter couple whose marriage is falling apart. Joan Cusack is radiant yet opaque in capturing the distance and cluelessness that can come with marital and financial stability. Jennifer Aniston is good as an insecure, depressed stoner getting taxed out of her friend group (like Dana Stevens, I like when Aniston plays losers; like Molly Lambert, I hate when she’s represented as one in the tabloids). As more friends settle into lucrative jobs, mortgages, and parenthood while my partner and I are still on our grind, I can relate to the film’s exploration of class difference within adult friendships. But it’s a total copout that Aniston’s Olivia ends up with a tender-hearted schlub who just happens to be rich.
I have similar feelings toward 2010’s Please Give. Again, I like most of the film. Again, it privileges female subjectivity—the film opens with a mammography montage set to the Roches’ “No Shoes” and works from there. Again, it has a great cast. Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet’s candid performances recall the masterful sisterly tenderness and resentment offered by the principles in Woody Allen’s Interiors. Cosmetologist Mary (Peet) and breast cancer radiology technician Rebecca (Hall) sometimes aren’t even sisters so much as they are opposing poles. The former is burnt and dried out from too much time spent under tanning beds and cruel men, while the latter gives up a personal life to look after the grandmother who took her in as a teenager following her mother’s suicide. Their grandmother Andra (an acidic Ann Guilbert crowned by a shock of lurid orange curls) is a defiantly unpleasant woman who resents hollow displays of goodwill.
Thus she’s immediately suspicious, if not outright contemptuous of her neighbor Kate (Keener), a furniture store owner who cannot escape her own white guilt. Andra has good reason to be cautious of Kate and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), who make their living selling dead people’s furniture and are waiting for their elderly neighbor to die so that they can expand their apartment. Though the film was almost called The Cake is Good (which refers to a line of dialogue from a tense dinner scene and was fortunately rejected by the brass at Sony) it could just as easily be called White Women’s Tears.
Kate cries a lot. She cries for her daughter Abby (Sarah Steele, who is excellent as a casually destructive self-loathing teenager), who has bad skin and wants a $200 pair of jeans. She cries for her homeless neighbors, for whom she hands crisp $5 and $20 bills and individualizes an institutional problem. She cries for a marriage that seems to have settled somewhere between a business partnership and a platonic friendship over the years. She cries for her own privilege, and looks into volunteering out of recognition that throwing money around is not enough.
Though some may argue that the film doesn’t fully challenge white female privilege (or tire of Kate’s crying), it’s to the film’s credit that it uses this as character detail and tries to mine humor and social commentary from it. This is particularly evident when Kate interacts with people of color. Early on, we see her give money to a transvestite homeless person (Harmonica Sunbeam). Later, after dining out with her family, she attempts to give her doggie bag to a black man (Arthur French) she assumes is homeless because of his disheveled appearance but is actually waiting on a table. Finally, she is asked to leave a facility for special needs children by Mrs. Melnick (Portia) after she starts crying over their game of basketball. I appreciate the film’s attempts to deal with race and class privilege and represent it as interrelated, comical, and ugly. When Abby snatches the $20 from her mother’s hand as she attempts to give it to a homeless person, I’m not in either person’s corner.
So it’s frustrating that the film ends with Abby’s parents buying her expensive jeans. It follows a subplot involving marital infidelity between Alex and Mary that is obvious, impulsive, and mercifully brief. Interestingly, Alex never admits the affair to Kate, though she and her daughter seem aware of it. It also follows Andra’s funeral, where Rebecca and Kate acknowledge that they’re probably going to slip out of each other’s lives. Kate’s decision to buy the jeans is a symbolic gesture to reinvest in her family, but to me it is ultimately as hollow as giving money to homeless people to buy off guilt. Kate also gives back a client’s family heirloom in an earlier scene. He promptly breaks it, which reminds us that things are ephemeral and only mean what we make them mean.
That’s probably what’s going on with the jeans. But hopefully the purchase follows an admission of infidelity, an apology, and a concerted, continuously renewed effort to give to one another. Mary and Rebecca hint at such a shift in their relationship in a touching scene after Andra’s death where they watch television together. Mary puts her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and Rebecca holds her hand. Such instinctive, non-verbal gestures are priceless.
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