The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Although you can see the ending from at least a mile away, Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” proves to be an insightful, detailed, nuanced study of a woman affected by her past.  Miller wrote the screenplay, adapted from her own novel, and also directed the film.  As if this is not enough, Miller earns extra credit for actually coaxing a decent performance out of wooden actor Keanu Reeves.

Miller displays a refreshing and seldom used visual vocabulary that creatively shows how past and present can inform each other.  Instead of relying on effects added during post production, the film’s trips from present to past are accomplished with in camera effects.  For example there is a scene of Pippa as an adult in her living room.  The camera moves up out of the living room to the outside of a house and continues to a window through which we see Pippa as a little girl, all in one shot.  The transition was accomplished with a specially constructed set that had the outside of the house as part of the living room set.  The result is theatrical and much more satisfying than using a dissolve that we have seen in a thousand other movies.   Granted, simply employing a dissolve to accomplish this effect would have been simpler.  However, Miller’s technique builds a solid, seamless relationship between past and present.  Story wise this relationship is important.  Pippa’s past and how it affects her present is what the film is about.

The cast is populated with good actors who I do not recall seeing much of lately. These include Alan Arkin and Winona Ryder.  Obviously they must have been holding out for a good script.  Pippa Lee is played by Robin Wright Penn who infuses the character with compassion, vulnerability and dignity.  She paints Pippa as a woman trying to keep her life together while surrounded by a less than sane environment.  Pippa is a married to Herb (Arkin) a good 30 years her senior.  They have just moved into a retirement village where Pippa is one of the youngest residents.  Wright captures Pippa’s need to please and be a care giver to her husband and others while dealing with her own tortured past, worries about the present and squeaks of instability from those around her, herself possibly included.

The other performances are well modulated.  Wright’s performance is nicely in sync with that of Blake Lively who portrays the troubled, younger Pippa.  Maria Bello gives a ferocious performance as Pippa’s mother Suky whose addiction to diet pills and subsequent mood swings lights the fuse for much of Pippa’s present day angst.  Arkin is also on target as the husband who appreciates Pippa’s qualities but also has his resentments.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is a thoughtful, well photographed and acted, intelligent story about interesting characters.  As indicated earlier the only fly in the ointment is the ending, not to be revealed here.  I will only say that the conclusion to which Pippa comes, while certainly fair, is also too easy and the film’s final line a cliche.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, director Rebecca Miller, 2009,

Screen Media Films, 98 minutes, rated R


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on December 15, 2009, in Off the Beaten Path. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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