Get Over It

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Is it unethical to buy low and sell high? The central characters in “Please Give” seem to think so.

Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a successful business purchasing used furniture, mostly from estate sales after someone has died, and reselling it at a substantial profit from their toney Manhattan shop. Lately, however, Kate has been feeling guilty about making so much money off other people’s grief. She worries that others think of them as ambulance chasers.

Adding to her sense of guilt is the fact that she and Alex have purchased the apartment next door to them in a sort

of reverse mortgage deal. They want to break through the dividing wall and expand their first apartment — a common practice in New York, where space is at a premium. The only catch is that they have to wait for the 90-year-old seller, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played the Petries’ neighbor Millie on “The Dick van Dyke Show”), to die before they can take possession, and they feel understandably gruesome about hoping she will die soon.

To overcome her feeling of guilt, Kate looks for ways to “give back.” She gives fives and twenties to the homeless people she passes on the street. She volunteers at various nonprofit organizations, including a veterans’ hospital, an old folks’ residence, and an activity center for children with Down’s Syndrome. Nothing pulls her out of her funk. She never returns for a second shift.

Meanwhile, Alex and their daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), feel neglected. “We’re partners,” Alex explains sadly. “Partners in business, partners in parenting, partners in life. We’re good friends.” But he doesn’t want a partner. He wants his wife. Clearly he misses the passion and attention she once gave him. Similarly, Abby feels detached from her mother. Abby is going through typical teenage angst, mostly about her face and figure. Kate is too busy and angst-ridden herself to give more than cursory attention to her daughter. When Abby asks for some expensive jeans that she thinks make her look less chubby, Kate tells her, “I’m not giving you $200 for jeans when 45 homeless people live on our street.” It’s a modern twist on the old “children are starving in China,” or “India,” or even “France” (if you’re old enough).

As you may have noticed, “Give” is the operative word in this film. Kate wants to “give back” (is there a more common cliche?). And she doesn’t want to give money. “That’s too easy,” she says; “I want to do something.” The odd thing is that she gives to strangers, while she doesn’t seem capable of giving to her own family. But charity rightly begins at home. Instead of worrying about the ethics of buying low and selling high, Kate ought to be worrying about the ethics of teaching her daughter to rely on handouts. At 16, Abby is old enough to work in the family business and earn the $200 to buy her own jeans.

This is obvious to the viewer — at least to this one — but it doesn’t seem obvious to the filmmakers. In fact, “Please Give” completely misses how the market works. There is nothing wrong with buying low and selling high, as long as there is no deliberate misrepresentation. In the free market, both the buyer and the seller gain, or they wouldn’t agree to an exchange. In any transaction, there’s more involved than simply money. The film provides an excellent example. As middlemen, Alex and Kate provide ready cash and convenience to sellers who don’t have the time or interest to hire a private appraiser or offer each piece of property individually. Time and convenience are often more valuable than a few extra dollars to heirs who are simply in a hurry to empty a relative’s apartment. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Marketing items for a higher price than you paid for them harms neither the new buyer nor the original seller. Again, the film provides an illustration: Alex and Kate add value to each product by improving it — replacing inner cushions, fixing stuck drawers, smoothing gouged wood. They make shopping easier for the next owner by displaying the goods attractively in a shop conveniently located in the home furnishing district. Most importantly, no one is forced to sell or buy. Everyone is free to shop around. In sum, Kate and Alex provide a service. They should not feel guilty about getting paid for it — by people who (remember) aren’t required to deal with them.

Let’s consider Andra, the next-door neighbor. She, too, receives a tangible benefit from the pre-death purchase of her apartment. By selling it before she dies, she can use the equity while she is still alive, instead of leaving it all to her heirs. Her quality of life can improve. She may feel uncomfortable knowing that the neighbors are waiting for her to die, but that doesn’t seem to bother her, so why should it bother Kate?

These considerations don’t seem to affect the filmmakers, perhaps because the observations I’ve made would be too optimistic to suit them. “Please Give” is amusing and well-acted, but it is not a pretty film, and it was not meant to be. It focuses on the unattractive parts of life — zits, dog poop, old-person smells, even a montage of breasts being squeezed into mammograms as the film opens (Andra’s granddaughter Rebecca [Rebecca Hall] happens to be a mammography technician, giving the director an excuse to present a parade of disembodied breasts of all sizes and ages).

Most of the characters aren’t very nice either. Andra is insufferably mean, rude, ungracious, and inconsiderate — hilariously so, I might add. I know women who are just like her. When Rebecca and her boyfriend take Andra to see the leaves changing color, Andra turns her back on the view and refuses to see the beauty. It is a sad revelation of her character, and one of the most

powerful moments in the film. Andra’s granddaughter Mary (Amanda Peet) is almost as rude, shallow and inconsiderate. So is Alex. So is Abby, although we feel sorry for the poor kid.

The most significant thing, though, is that the film just plain misses the boat philosophically. It hasn’t a clue about the moral issue it considers.

It does seem to have a target audience, however. As I was leaving the theater, I noticed that everyone except me had white hair. No wonder I smelled peppermint instead of popcorn. . . . Would you like Metamucil with that, Ma’am?

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