Friday, December 4, 2009

Movie Review: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee ***
Directed By:
Rebecca Miller.
Written By: Rebecca Miller based on her book.
Starring: Robin Wright Penn (Pippa Lee), Alan Arkin (Herb Lee), Maria Bello (Suky Sarkissian), Keanu Reeves (Chris Nadeau), Blake Lively (Young Pippa), Winona Ryder (Sandra Dulles), Mike Binder (Sam Shapiro), Ryan McDonald (Ben Lee), Tim Guinee (Des Sarkissian), Zoe Kazan (Grace Lee), Shirley Knight (Dot Nadeau), Robin Weigert (Trish Sarkissian), Julianne Moore (Kat), Monica Bellucci (Gigi Lee).

Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn) is a middle aged woman who has spent her entire life being what other people want her to be, instead being who she really is. She has worn so many masks in her life that she doesn’t even know herself who she really is. As a child, she was her mother’s pride and joy – essentially her plaything – until she became suffocated from all the attention and got out. She then drifted around New York, living a kind of artist’s lifestyle of drugs and sex, without actually being an artist. When she meets a much older man Herb (Alan Arkin), she falls in love and spends the next 20 some odd years playing the dutiful wife and mother. Now Herb has gotten old and moved them to a retirement community, and Pippa no longer knows what to do with herself.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee tells her story in a film that is sensitive and intelligent, and yet somewhat cold and aloof. This is necessary, because the character at the center of the film is unknowable – both to the audience, and really to herself. Who is Pippa Lee really? If she doesn’t know, what chance do we have of figuring it out?

But therein lies the fascination of the movie itself. So many movies are about characters who are so sure of themselves and who they are, or else go on one of those journeys of self discovery. Most of these movies begin where The Private Lives of Pippa Lee ends. They follow the same path through their stories to the same ending. In a way, we don’t need to see what happens to Pippa after the movie ends, because we’ve already seen that movie. We haven’t really seen a movie where the main character is an enigma at the beginning of the movie, and at the end she remains one.

Robin Wright Penn is excellent in a nearly impossible role. Pippa is by her nature a passive character, who simply takes whatever comes her way in stride, but is going through a crisis during the course of the movie. She doesn’t know what to do with herself, doesn’t know if she is happy or unhappy, and doesn’t know how to deal with her past other than to leave it behind her. Blake Lively is also quite good playing the younger version of Pippa – the party girl who is simply a party girl because there really isn’t another option. Maria Bello is even better as Pippa’s long suffering, amphetamine addicted mother. Winona Ryder hasn’t been this good in years, as a younger woman who seems to get off on being in a constant state of crisis. The men in the movie are fine as well, but writer/director Rebecca Miller (adapting her own novel) doesn’t feel the need to really fill them in – because they really are characters we’ve seen before. Alan Arkin is the older man who doesn’t want to admit that he’s old. At one point he yells at Pippa “Damn you for making me feel like an old man”, to which she simply responds “You are an old man”. He cannot see what is plain to everyone else. Keanu Reeves is fine as a younger man, a screw-up and self confessed asshole who Pippa is inexplicably drawn to. Maybe it’s because he is so sure of who he is, and is comfortable with it, but Pippa finds herself constantly seeking out his company.

Rebecca Miller is quietly becoming one of the most interesting female directors around. Her debut film, Personal Velocity (also based on one of her books), was a fascinating little movie, and her follow up The Ballad of Jack and Rose, was interesting if a little too obvious (but saved by a dynamic performance by her husband Daniel Day Lewis). In The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I think she has created a protagonist that many women will reluctantly admit reminds them of themselves. If the movie isn’t as emotionally involving as her previous films, it’s because Pippa Lee is an unknowable character. That is both the films blessing and its curse. This is a fascinating little film.

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