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- The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Directed and written by Rebecca Miller
Pippa Lee – Robin Wright Penn
Chris – Keanu Reeves
Herb Lee – Alan Arkin
Kit – Julianne Moore
Trish – Robin Weigert
Suky Sarkissian – Maria Bello
Des Sarkissian – Tim Guinee
Teenaged Pippa – Blake Lively
Gigi Lee – Monica Bellucci
Grace Lee – Zoe Kazan
Sandra Dulles – Winona Ryder
A Smart, Quirky Movie That Would Benefit From More Focus
Rebecca Miller is perhaps one of the film industry’s most versatile talents. Her previous directorial efforts, Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, are small, poignant snippets of women’s escapes from the confines of relationships. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is yet another tale of feminine independence. For Pippa Lee, Miller adapted her own novel into a screenplay and then directed the movie. She fits the very definition of auteur: she was a powerful force at every stage of the filmmaking process, and one would think this would produce a movie with a singular, personal vision. Pippa Lee, bolstered by A-list actors and a passionate focus on a very individual story, is actually a bit scatterbrained and overwrought. Though it strives earnestly to tell the triumphant tale of a woman’s reclamation of her identity, it also tries to be humorous, dramatic, and tragic—and these facets never quite engage to create a solid whole.
Robin Wright plays Pippa, a beautiful, pastel-clad homemaker nearing her 50s. As the movie opens, her much older husband Herb (lovably gruff Alan Arkin) drags her into a retirement community with him, and Pippa’s seemingly flawless exterior begins to unravel. The film hops back and forth between the present, in which Pippa and Herb’s relationship begins to crack and crumble, and the past, in which we’re introduced to Pippa Sarkissian, a very different young woman who tenaciously molded her life into the guarded perfection of the present. The sterile, pastel walls of the retirement home are conducive to flashbacks of the 1960s suburbia in which Pippa grew up, and although each flashback provides insight into Pippa’s character, it’s difficult to reconcile younger Pippa (Blake Lively) with the coolly composed present-day woman.
Throughout her entire life, Pippa has been a metaphorical chunk of clay waiting for a sculptor. For her neurotic, pill-popping mother Suky Sarkissian (Maria Bello), she was a paper doll—a dress-form with big blue eyes and long, gorgeous locks. When she hits her teenage years, Pippa realizes her mother’s got serious issues (namely with Dexedrine) and moves out to live with her aunt Trish, whose girlfriend Kat (Julianne Moore) stages arty lesbian S&M photos. Pippa resumes the familiar role as poseable doll—only this time in lingerie and with whips. She veers away from stability, stumbling into disaster after debacle, and eventually into the arms of much older sophisticate Herb. Lively, recognizable from TV’s “Gossip Girl,” is effectively a pretty mannequin. The actress has little range, and the transitions between Lively and Wright are jarring simply because Wright infuses her performance with subtle tics and telling expressions Lively doesn’t. This might have been Miller’s intention: young Pippa is utterly malleable, and older Pippa is beginning to crack at the seams, showing her true character.
The director uses clever visual and script cues to underline the story of a woman reclaiming her individuality. At a housewarming party for publishing magnate Herb, one of his colleagues tells Pippa she is “giving, caring, beautiful, intelligent…the perfect artist’s wife.” Though meant in kindness, it’s in fact a horrible backhanded compliment, and it sets the tone. Pippa’s identity is centered upon her marriage and home life, and she tiptoes meekly through interactions, striving to be the kindest person she can. For this she’s rewarded with the acknowledgment that she’s a good wife. Her recently divorced neighbor Chris (Keanu Reeves, stepping away from his doofy “I know kung-fu” persona) opens Pippa’s eyes in more ways than one. When she sleepwalks into the gas station where he works, he tries to wake her: “Mrs. Lee?” he asks, and when she doesn’t respond, he rephrases, “Pippa?” Her eyes pop open—another subtle sign that somewhere inside, she struggles to be recognized not as Herb Lee’s wife, but as Pippa. In another scene, Chris and Pippa have a fumbling sexual encounter in the back of his truck, and Miller focuses on female pleasure—something rarely seen in studio films, and a revelation for the protagonist who never focuses on herself.
Wright (who is credited in the film as Robin Wright-Penn, but officially changed back to her maiden name following her most recent separation from Sean Penn) performs beautifully as serene, slightly distraught Pippa. Bello’s performances are generally gritty, honest, and real, and Suky is no exception; it’s too bad the role is so small. Winona Ryder overacts in the role of Sandra Dulles, a hilariously self-centered adulteress, but that’s perfect: Sandra is ultimately a pathetic attention monger. Thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn, the suburban Connecticut setting has never looked quite so lush and pretty.
Pippa Lee’s quirky script and liberating message are well and good; however, too much is going on at once, and the result is a movie that never delves deeply enough into its subject. Literature’s format allows raw glimpses into the heads of the characters, and the novel can play with humor and tragedy in a way film often cannot. In an industry still dominated by men, there are only a few female directors making big pictures. Most of Miller’s work takes place outside the mainstream, but she is undoubtedly a talent to be reckoned with. With Pippa Lee, her good intentions and adoration of the character are clear, but ultimately the movie would benefit from some of the self-reflection it grants its protagonist.