Please Give Offers Ironic Laughs

Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a bit more cosmic.

Nicole Holofcener is one of the smart ones. In common with Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, and only a handful of other writer-directors working the fertile field of urban situational character studies, the fifty-year-old Holofcener has a remarkable ear for dialogue and an uncanny feel for the swirling ironies of the modern predicament.

Once upon a time, the style of light comic dramas in which Holofcener specializes carried the implicit warning label “women’s pictures” or “chick flicks.” After all, she directed several episodes of Sex and the City as well as the 2001 mother-daughter sitcom Lovely & Amazing. But of course in reality there are no bad genres, only bad screenplays. While laboring in the chick-flick vineyards, Holofcener developed a considerable arsenal of creative weapons, not to mention a stock company of frequent acting collaborators including Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, both of whom show up in her latest, the immensely pleasurable Please Give.

Kate (Keener) and Alex (Platt) are not a desperately unhappy married couple. Their discontent is of the niggling, drippy-faucet, energy-sapping-over-a-long-period-of-time variety. Together they own and operate a Manhattan home furnishings shop specializing in vaguely Mid-Century Modern pieces — meaning whatever they can find by trolling death notices and then showing up with a lump-sum cash offer for deceased senior citizens’ Fifties-Sixties-Seventies-era tables, chairs, and knickknacks. Their trick is to buy a sofa for fifty dollars and sell it for a thousand, ideally without smirking. Business is okay.

Their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) is, gratifyingly, not one of those sage adolescents perplexed by her parents’ self-absorption and lack of awareness. Abby is bored stiff with them, but not so bored that she’s ready to give up on persuading them to buy her a pair of expensive designer jeans. What really annoys Abby, and affords hurricanes of hilarity for us, is Kate’s liberal-guilt habit of forcing money on perceived-homeless people she encounters on the street — whether or not they’re actually needy. Embarrassing miscues occur so often that Kate barely notices. Hence the title.

In the apartment next door lives Andra (Ann Guilbert), a sharp-tongued eighty-something about thirty minutes south of managed care. She forgets things, and speaks her mind as frankly and loudly as only an old lady can. Kate and Alex keep an eye on Andra, partly out of kindness and partly because their business plan is to wait around for people to die and then to capitalize on their possessions. Oh, one other thing: When the time comes, they want to take over Andra’s unit, knock down the walls, and expand their living space.

Also watching over Andra are her two single granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), who drop in regularly to help her with housekeeping and meals. Rebecca calls herself a radiologist, but her job consists mostly of performing mammograms. She’s one of the 21st-century walking wounded, a cousin of the Greta Gerwig character in Greenberg, but her hang-dog expression reflects a tiny ray of hope. Sexy hope. There’s more than a whisper of sex about her sister Mary, an ultra-cosmopolitan beauty spa technician not above providing “happy ending” massages to her clients. Both women roll their eyes frequently over their grandmother’s missteps, but only Rebecca offers anything close to unconditional love. Naturally, Andra notices this and remarks on it accordingly.

All this makes for a really dreadful, and dreadfully funny, time when Andra and her granddaughters come over to Kate and Alex’s for dinner and what-have-you. Holofcener is not a writer of epigrams. Her dialogue sparkles more in the delivery by pros like Keener (never better) and Platt (riotously dyspeptic) than with one-liners — but everyone gets a workout, especially Hall’s Rebecca. People feel sorry for her and constantly try to fix her up with unwanted men. Meanwhile, Alex responds to Mary’s flirtations by stopping by the spa for a facial. No one is ever satisfied with his or her choices, but the negotiations never stop.

True to the genre — if not necessarily to the filmmaker’s clear-eyed, undyingly skeptical sense of humor — it’s Andra and Abby, the senior and the junior, who see through the blizzard most clearly. The trip to “see the leaves” would be the centerpiece of any contemporary French family drama — in this film it’s an epiphany tossed aside like a junk-food snack. Later, after the dust settles, it will resemble a feast in retrospect. Much the same could be said for Please Give itself. Don’t be put off by the bitchy-familiar chick-flick wrapper. This one’s a keeper.

Near the beginning of this review we postulated that there are no bad genres, only bad screenplays. Bear that in mind in the case of Kim Jee-won‘s The Good, the Bad, the Weird. By most measures, Kim’s oblique, Far East homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, set in the wastelands of Manchuria on the eve of WWII, is 100 percent derivative — a hectic, violent, gorgeously photographed mock-oater that could never exist without Leone or Quentin Tarantino.

And yet it’s just fine with popcorn and wine — and further indication that anything Hollywood can do, Seoul can do at twice the speed with three times the gaudiness. Is that a good thing? In this instance, yes.

We find our three antagonists — the Weird (Song Kang-ho), a lackadaisical bandit; the Good (Jung-Woo-sung), a bounty hunter on a motorcycle; and the Bad (Lee Byung-hun), a standard-issue cool gunslinger in black — converging on a train in the process of being robbed. The action proceeds at breakneck speed through picturesque desert territory (shot on location in the Gobi Desert and other spots in China’s wild West) to a town filled with flying bullets, various villains’ roosts, opium dens, and bordellos, while the boys shoot it out amongst themselves, the invading Japanese army, and an outlandishly coiffed bad guy named Byung-choon (Yun Je-mun).

The writing: perfunctory, and totally in the service of impossible stunts (the production company swears there’s no CGI). The acting: broad, baby, broad. Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seung-chul’s cinematography and lighting: splendid. It drags badly in the final quarter, despite the violence, but by then we appreciate the break. There’s even a left-handed tribute to Mel BrooksBlazing Saddles in the form of a Mongo-style behemoth. Director/co-writer Kim certainly enjoys ransacking genres. We’re holding out for his remake of Gone with the Wind.

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