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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

* * *

Director: Rebecca Miller
Starring: Robin Wright

Hmm... great performance, so-so movie. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee ultimately strives for much more than it achieves, but it's a decent movie and incredibly well-acted. Certainly, it deserved better than the super quiet release it ended up with.

The film is split into two storylines, one taking place in the present day when Pippa (Robin Wright) moves with her husband (Alan Arkin) to an old age facility, the other comprised of flashbacks to Pippa's childhood and early adult years (where she's played by Blake Lively). In the present day Pippa is content but anxious. She loves her husband, their children are grown and have embarked on lives of their own; her life is stable and content. In flashbacks we see why this stability is so desperately valued. Her mother (Maria Bello is an excellent performance) was addicted to speed and held the family hostage at the whims of her emotions; she ran away as a teenager to live with an aunt (Robin Weigert) and got caught up in fetish photography courtesy of her aunt's girlfriend (Julianne Moore); as a young adult she drifted aimlessly until meeting her future husband who, while much older and already married, nevertheless made her feel valued and like she could accomplish something with her life.

Now it's decades later, her husband is retired, they live in a seniors' centre, and she's taken to sleepwalking. There's something wrong that she just can't put her finger on, perhaps it's just that her husband is nearing the end of his life while she still has decades more to go and the distance between them is only growing. One day their neighbors' son (Keanu Reeves) moves into the complex. He's apparently incapable of lying or sugar-coating things and he and Pippa develop a friendship which she is careful to keep platonic. And then, suddenly, everything just falls apart and the life she has built gives way, leaving her wondering: where do I go and what do I do now?

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee strives for - and occasionally achieves - a certain kind of poignancy. Its protagonist finds, suddenly, that no one needs her anymore and though she has lots of life left to live, there's no solid social narrative for her to follow. If a woman's life is supposed to be (as cultural mythology suggests) a progression towards getting married, having children and raising children and that's it, then where is one supposed to go once all that has been accomplished? A woman's life doesn't cease just because her children have grown up and she has grown older, but our culture nevertheless tends to treat older women as obsolete. This is the position that Pippa finds herself in and the film's primary concern is with her figuring out how to negotiate this odd transitional phase in her life.

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the film flows easily and is generally quite clever, even if I do think that it falls a bit short of its ambitions. Miller has assembled a great cast, beginning with Wright who manages to play Pippa in a very low-key way but is able to effectively express the restlessness and anxiety simmering beneath her surface. She and Arkin might seem like an odd match on paper (though not nearly as odd as Lively and Arkin in the flashbacks), but they have a good rapport with each other and make for a pretty believable couple. In a small but crucial supporting role Winona Ryder (who I usually find kind of annoying) provides an awesome bit of comic relief, playing an ultra emotional character opposite Wright's cool Pippa. Ultimately, I recommend the film more on the strength of the performances than anything else, but I do still recommend it.


Candice Frederick said...

interesting...maybe i'll check this one out.

Norma Desmond said...

It's a bit uneven but it definitely has some good elements to it.

twistedspinner said...

Robin Wright's performances seem to just keep getting better and better.cas