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Nicole Holofcener says ‘Please Give,’ and Catherine Keener does, happily

Movie history is filled with colorful, career-defining relationships between an auteur and his muse — think John Ford and John Wayne; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (or Mia Farrow, for that matter); and more recently, Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz.

With their fourth collaboration, “Please Give,” opening in theaters Friday, writer-director Nicole Holofcener and Catherine Keener — the star of every one of Holofcener’s movies — have solidified their place on that list. Though, somehow, they seem a little more unassuming than the others.

“Is it OK if I’m down here? Can you still pick me up with your recorder thingy?” Holofcener asks from her kitchen floor.

The creator of “Lovely & Amazing” and “Friends With Money” has slinked down to the blond wood of her Venice house so she can be next to J.D. “Because I can’t resist him,” she says, giving the black Labrador mix a big kiss.

“Now I want to be down there,” says Keener as she too settles on the sun-drenched surface. “Ooh, you’re so cute,” says the actress, who’s wearing a flannel shirt and jeans with the cuffs still rolled up from her bike ride down from Santa Monica.

It’s hard to imagine Scorsese and DeNiro doing this, but once the conversation has moved to the floor, it’s easy to see the connection the two share.

“We hit it off instantly,” says Holofcener, 50, who had seen Keener in 1992’s “Johnny Suede” and knew she wanted her to play the lead (based on herself) in her first film, “Walking and Talking.” “She’s very open and I felt very comfortable with her. I had a total girl crush.”

“Me too,” says Keener, 51. “I remember her saying, ‘Well, I don’t really have the money, but if I make it I’d really like for you to be in it.’”

Miramax wanted a bigger name but after some high-profile actors turned it down, Keener landed the role of Amelia, who feels stuck in her life while her best friend ( Anne Heche) gets engaged and her ex-boyfriend ( Liev Schreiber) starts up an affair.

“It struck me that she was making a movie about the best friend, the kind of loser,” Keener says. “It was not as much about the conventional leading woman, the ingénue, the beautiful one. Usually, a movie is [about] that person. That’s what tipped Keener off to Holofcener’s unique point-of-view: “She does see things very differently. It’s just these little revelations, these little life things that happen. You don’t realize it and then it adds up to so much.”

In “Lovely & Amazing,” ideas about vanity and insecurity resound in those “little life things.” Keener’s jobless artist Michelle makes tiny, fragile chairs that no one will buy. “Don’t you wish you were small enough to sit in them?” she asks to blank stares. She also embodies the awkward moment, always saying the wrong things.

In “Friends With Money,” jealousy over youth, looks and money infuses the story of friendship among contemporaries with disparate incomes. The 2006 film is an ensemble in which Keener plays a screenwriter in a failing marriage with her writing partner. She likes to bluntly declare that her friend’s husband is gay.

“We all just do things sometimes,” says Keener, “even if they’re contrary to what we believe in, that we’re not conscious of at the time. Sometimes those things that we’re not conscious of doing actually reveal this humanity that’s sort of lovely.”

Once again tackling important topics with razor-sharp humor, “Please Give” is about friendship, death and marital lethargy.

Keener plays Kate, a New York City mom who with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), has bought the apartment adjacent to theirs and awaits the death of its cranky elderly tenant (" The Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Millie, Ann Guilbert) so they can expand their place. They also have a shop where they resell the Midcentury Modern furniture of the newly deceased — at a premium. But Kate’s pangs of conscience have her doling out $20 bills to homeless people while refusing to buy her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) $200 jeans.

Holofcener, who grew up in New York City and Los Angeles but has lived in L.A. for the past 13 years, was inspired to write the film by a New Yorker who had bought the apartment next door with a still-living tenant. The scenario brought up shame that Holofcener feels every day. “Just driving my car out onto Lincoln [Boulevard] it’s unavoidable,” Holofcener says of the homeless population. “I find it unbearable, but obviously I can bear it, because you have to. I’m trying to figure out how to feel OK about enjoying my life when others aren’t enjoying theirs.”

She hoped the movie, an unflinching social satire, would exorcise her self-admitted privileged guilt. It didn’t.

“I admitted it,” repeats Holofcener, ever hard on herself. “I know I have the zit on my face; there’s nothing you can say to me that will hurt my feelings. And yet nothing’s different.”

That last bit — a reference to the acne-plagued teenager who covers her face with her panties at dinner in “Please Give” — shows how Holofcener’s pain lives in every self-involved character she writes, not only the ones played by Keener.

Still, every time she writes a script she has Keener in mind. “She can access anything,” says Holofcener. “Catherine can access lots of parts of a person. I don’t think she has a problem being angry or stupid or ugly or weeping. Whether or not she ends up doing it or it’ll work out, it’s inspiring to have Catherine in my head.”

calendar@latimes.com


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