Back to “Please Give”
So, in the wake of the boring–yet annoying–Golden Globes, I’ve been asked what movies of last year I’d recommend that the foreign correspondents slighted. Let me say, to begin with, that my list of last year’s bests probably wouldn’t include the award-winning The Social Network. How significant can a film be, finally, that centers on someone who’s not even an “asshole,” but only wants to be one? Sure, he’s a really, really rich asshole wannabe, but still. I guess I could add that the film does well in highlighting on the flat-souled narcissism of our techno-meritocracy–a narcissism that’s more a fearful pose than a mirror of the Facebook inventor’s soul. But The Social Network is far inferior to, say, Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, where the characters have some genuine (if fading) class and a better sense of the price they’re paying for having been morally abandoned. Maybe the irony of The Social Network is the word network; the film is about people for whom networking and hooking up have largely replaced real and lasting friendship. And there’s no point making the hyper-obvious point that Facebook friends aren’t real friends.
The Golden Globe people totally discredited themselves by ignoring True Grit, which seems stranger and more wonderful–if not exactly all that enjoyable–the more I think about it. But I actually really enjoyed the neglected Please Give. Let me share with you some thoughts about that film I wrote down last June, because you’re in a great position to Netflick it (or whatever) now.
Please Give considers with great sensitivity many politically correct topics without supporting the politically correct conclusions. The central couple make big money by buying the furniture of the newly dead (and formerly elderly) from their grieving children for very little and then selling it in their trendy shop as either antique or retro. The husband sees no problem with this, realizing they are being justly compensated for performing a valuable service from which everyone benefits. The wife is overly guilty about being a parasite and compensates by giving homeless people twenties and trying to volunteer to help out the unfortunate. She breaks down in self-indulgent sentimentality while observing a group of happy, athletic Down syndrome kids playing basketball. She so obviously doesn’t have what it takes to work with those loving kids that she’s asked by the professional caregiver to leave. The kids end up comforting her. Meanwhile, she’s pretty oblivious to the needs of her own daughter, who being zitty (and so merely charming but not stunning) in the City has her own issues.
Liberal guilt, we learn, is usually caused by being abstracted from those you actually know and love. The wife and mother’s (very petty) redemptive moment is at the movie’s end, when she loosens up enough to buy her self-esteem challenged daughter some very expensive and flattering jeans as an act of love. The result, of course, is that the homeless who depend on her like domesticated cats will be short a twenty or two.
The husband, meanwhile, all lonely with a wife who has become merely his abstracted partner in business, is generous and attentive to the daughter. He buys her nice stuff without worrying about how the injustice affects her soul. He has a fairly pathetic–even perfunctory–affair, but he never stops thinking about his wife and kid. And he’s fairly okay with being somewhat fat, and that fact makes him very attractive to compulsively thin women.
The best thing about this movie is its unflinching portrayal of the lives of two very old (and very near death) women. One maintains her dignity by being brave and upbeat, the other by being smart and astutely critical of everything. They both are touchingly dependent on the unconditional love of a single grandchild, and that love is the most wonderful thing in the movie by far. In general, the movie shows us how hard it is for the old to be loved these days for all sorts of reasons. One, of course, is that people fear and work against aging and death more than ever.
There’s other great stuff: We get a real feel for how tough and inconvenient it is for even pretty prosperous people to live in the City. And the fairly clastrophobic apartments make the case for the suburbs and their trees and square feet and huge laundry rooms indirectly but insistently.
And we’re shown how dependent an only child is on his or her parents for altogether too much.
The self-obsessiveness of Manhattanites restless in the midst of prosperity reminds us a little of Woody Allen, but not much. This movie is way too pro-family and unsentimental; it’s toughly critical of those who wallow in the misery of their mortality. It might be the type of movie Walker Percy would make if he were a woman and not particularly religious.