“I'm a girl who likes nice stuff,” says Nicole Holofcener, looking around the spacious but unpretentious home she recently bought in a celebrity-free neighborhood of Venice, California. “But right where I live, there's a three-block area that's all homeless, all the time, and my heart breaks when I drive down Lincoln Boulevard in the morning. I'm completely polarized.”

Crippling ambivalence is the basic currency of the tortured women in writer-director Holofcener's urban ensemble comedies, led by Catherine Keener, her muse and alter ego in the land of the highly strung sourpuss. In Holofcener's first feature, Walking and Talking (1996), Keener played an insecure New York singleton living in the shadow of her best friend; in Lovely & Amazing (2001), the actress was a foulmouthed aspiring artist hawking miniature chairs around Beverly Hills gift boutiques; and in Friends With Money (2006), she was a successful screenwriter in a troubled marriage with her co-writer husband.

In Holofcener's new movie, Please Give, Keener plays Kate, a successful Manhattan recycler of antique furniture, who's waiting for her elderly next-door neighbor, a cranky widow played by Ann Guilbert, to die so that she and her husband (Oliver Platt) can move in and remodel. Kate haunts estate sales, buying cheap and selling dear while pressing $20 bills in the palms of the homeless (and, it turns out, not so homeless) near her pricey building, to the chagrin of her hormonal teenage daughter (Sarah Steele), whose nagging requests for $200 jeans are rejected by her mother with limo-liberal lectures on those less fortunate than us.

That's just some of the guilt in Please Give, which opens next week in theaters, and also features lying, infidelity, stalking, bad-mouthing the elderly and, um, compulsive tanning. As always, irate shrews and sheepish cads abound, but there's not a soul you can't warm to by the end, not because anyone has resolved their 21st-century privileged angst, but because they all struggle so valiantly with their inadequate selves. We should all have such struggles, you might be thinking about this recession-proof crew, but it's clear that Holofcener is also rolling her eyes at a world she knows all too well from the inside.

In person, Holofcener is warm, friendly and unassuming. She apologizes for forcing me to listen to her chew breakfast, and while coughing up her life history upon request, she keeps interrupting herself to ask, “Do you really want to hear all this?” She's down-to-earth and quick with the funny comeback. When I suggest that Jennifer Aniston, who played a lost-soul housekeeper in Friends With Money, is a decent actress whose life has gone off the rails recently, Holofcener cocks her head to one side: “Yeah. She's having fun maybe.” She can be very forthright, declaring herself really glad that Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker, “but that's a dude movie.” She's an attentive listener — and there's always the slightly disquieting feeling that she may be gathering material.

Holofcener writes from life — her own, her friends', and the large, multiply fractured family to whom she's very close. Her former boyfriend really did buy a Manhattan apartment and the one next door, which is still inhabited by an old woman who shows little sign of expiring (“She's ninety-fucking-seven years old, and very sweet”). Holofcener, who has lived in New York on and off, had an acerbic grandmother (was she nicer than the neighbor? “Nice-er,” she replies, giving me a dry look), unequally cared for by the director and her sister, a situation echoed in Please Give by British actress Rebecca Hall and a wonderfully acidic Amanda Peet, who play sisters taking care of Kate's elderly neighbor. Indeed, there's a part of Holofcener — abject, confused, sensitive to a fault, sharp-tongued but also loyal and maternal — in every character she creates. Though it was not she but a friend who really did try to give money to a black man who, it turned out, was waiting for a table at the restaurant where she'd just eaten.

Plotting is light in Holofcener's loosely episodic ensemble pieces, though not by design. “You could mix the scenes up,” she says amiably. “I'd like to write about somebody who robs a bank or has an abortion. But this is what comes out, and I'm not going to knock it.”

Like her previous films, Please Give is funny and wry, but there's a new tone, too. The anger is quieter, and the vibe is more wistful regret than whiny entitlement. As narcissists go, Kate is pretty kindly: When she tries to volunteer with Down syndrome kids, she ends up so emotional that one of the children has to comfort her as she sits weeping on a toilet. “It's more of an existential than a circumstantial sadness about our helplessness and the inevitability of death and the pointlessness of everything,” says Holofcener. “Even if you're Bill Gates, and you give so much money, it's still not enough — that's what Kate is crying about, what I'm crying about when I write it.”

Woody Allen aside, it's hard to think of a comedy more entertainingly obsessed with death and dying than Please Give. “Death's really in now, didn't you hear? Death's the new something, the new yoga,” Holofcener, a single mother of twin boys, says cheerfully. She's just heard that a friend around her age died of cancer. “I'm going to turn 50 next week, so that's a big deal, but today, I'm just happy to be alive.”

The oft-drawn comparison between Holofcener's comedies of free-floating ennui and early Woody Allen is apt. Her stepfather, Charles Joffe, was Allen's producer for a while, and her mother, Carol Joffe, was a set decorator on The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days. But Holofcener is quick to deny that she got a leg up in the film business from hanging around Allen's sets in her youth or from the director himself. “Woody could relate to me when I was a kid,” she says without rancor. “He'd come over to the house and tickle me and make jokes. But he's not a particularly warm and ingratiating person. When I grew up and worked as a production assistant on the set of A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, I'd say, 'Hi, Woody,' and he'd look at me as if he'd never met me. It was shocking and hurtful. So I can't say that I had an 'in' from seeing him work or learning from him. I was really, really influenced by his movies as a viewer. I loved Manhattan and Annie Hall.”

She also loves Martin Scorsese, her teacher at Columbia, and “fell asleep during my short film. It was horrifying, but he'd seen it about 30 times.” It's less surprising than you might imagine that Goodfellas is one of Holofcener's favorite movies. There's an anarchic toughness to her writing, a refusal to build ideology into her films that appeals to men and women but especially to women who are turned off or bored stiff by the current offering of chick flicks, from earth-mother indies to Sex and the City (several episodes of which Holofcener has directed).

Please Give opens with a mammary provocation and ends on a note of apparent consumer permissiveness that will likely send eyebrows skyward among the proper-parenting police. Look harder, and you'll see a moment of domestic repair, with two parents watching fondly as their child tries a pricey piece of apparel. “I look at my kids like that all day,” Holofcener says. “I think they want to slap me.”

LA Weekly