Saturday, May 22, 2010

Please Give: Nicole Holofcener Vies for Woody Allen's Legacy

Yes indeed, in this sweat, gentle film about two families of New Yorkers brought together by a splenetic 91-year-old woman, writer/director Nicole Holofcener has created that type of New-York slife-of-life picture of middle-class ennui, casual affairs, and anxieties once the exclusive province of Woody Allen. This Sundance favorite director has done it with her own style and a decidedly feminine eye. She may not yet be able to capture Allen's biting wit or the depths of his pathos, but this is a picture - and a director - worth keeping an eye on.

Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Pete) are two sisters caring for their cranky, aging grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert). Rebecca is the dowdy, sincere one (but clearly an ugly duckling waiting to become a swan), a radiology technician who makes a living scanning women's breasts for cancer. Mary is the pretty, sarcastic one who works in a salon giving facials and popping pimples.

Meanwhile, Andra's neighbors are precisely that type of Woody Allen put-upon, half-yuppie couple ripe for something to happen to their lives. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a mid-century modern furniture store, and have a fifteen-year-old daughter with body issues. Kate spends her days visiting the homes of the recently deceased, buying up the furniture, so that she and her husband can price it up to resell to their customers in the store. They also have their eye on scavenging Andra's apartment, and have already made plans to break through the wall for their new master bedroom once the old crow finally kicks the bucket.

This is a film that moves along on character and theme, rather than plot - so there's not much action to speak of, other than the endless introspection, inevitable liberal guilt, brief affair, and...I doubt I give away too much...inevitable passing of the despised old crow. But the movie builds its themes nicely. One of the thematic touches here are the differences in the two families - the one that's material (furniture) and the other body-oriented (medicine/facials), and the daughter who seemingly belongs more with the sisters than her own parents. For Kate, the dead still haunt the furniture she sells, and there's no getting around a world that's both more than material, and less than flesh.

What Holofcener is ultimately getting after are issues around getting older: not only for Andre but for all the characters. Age - and life, which is but age standing still - is a type of weariness, pregnant with the heavy weight of inevitable death, and the characters are judged on their attitudes torwards this injustice about being alive: do they find the beauty, or do they focus on the annoyances? The opening song, that classic ditty about "I had no shoes and I complained until I met a man who had no feet..." sets the mood, here, and its merry juxtaposition against a series of breast mammograms tells you the tone Holofcener is after.

Ultimately, however, the movie is about Kate and her struggle to reconcile her free-floating sense of guilt and remorse (which is just fine more me, since I think Keener is an actress who has yet to be given the role she deserves, and this one may get her one step closer). Kate's evaluating her own outlook - her liberalism is a form of crankiness and willful ignorance of her own role in the world (just as Andra tells people she was considered "smart" even though she had no more than an elementary school education, and she wears this earlier generation's form of liberalism as her own defense against people). Over the course of dealing with the little annoyances that life in New York puts in her way, she comes to realize her own prejudices and blindnesses, and in the end, decides not to turn away.

Perhaps this it's this optimism that ultimately distinguishes Holofcener from that other great chronicler of New York life, Woody Allen. Whereas Allen celebrates the cranks, Holofcener, I think, sympathizes with the rest of us. We may not be quite as interesting as the cranks. But our problems are no less significant.

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