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I wonder if I may be having a very quiet nervous breakdown.

Movie

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
(2009)

 

Not to be uncharitable, but one wonders how much of a free-pass Rebecca Miller gets on account of her family credentials (Arthur Miller as a father, Daniel Day Lewis as a husband). It’s not that there’s anything particularly bad about her work, but there’s nothing hugely compelling about it either. She assembles a fine cast for Pippa Lee, but it’s never clear what gripped her about the story, which she adapted from her own novel. One might argue this reflects the dreamy dissonance of the titular character, but I’m less convinced; as many of Miller’s choices seem missteps as they do successes.

Pippa Lee (Robin Wright), dutiful wife of much older publisher Herb (Alan Arkin), finds herself undergoing a restrained nervous breakdown when they move from Manhattan to a Connecticut retirement community. Flashbacks to Pippa’s early life show her struggle with her amphetamine-addicted mother (Maria Bello), her brief stay with an aunt (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert) and her girlfriend (Julianne Moore) before her first encounter with Herb (at which point, she’s a bit of a space case). In the present, she finds her relationship with Herb increasingly strained, and learns that she is having somnambulant episodes. She also forms a tentative friendship with a younger neighbour Chris (Keanu Reeves).

This is one of those low-budget melodramas where you’re unsure if it retained your interest because of the starry supporting turns, rather than any distinctive qualities it possesses in its own right. Wright is superb; she underplays and does great work suggesting an interior world that is gradually becoming less and less familiar. Arkin is a consummate scene-stealer, so it’s a compliment to say she holds her own. He makes this patriarch figure likeable in spite of his flaws. Winona Ryder’s supporting turn as a hugely self-involved friend of the couple is hilarious (and a good remind of the actress’ comic chops) while Keanu is in “decent Keanu supporting turn” mode (see Thumbsucker) than his variable leading man duties (also of note, he’s playing a decade younger than he is, and thus significantly junior to Wright, whom he is two years older than). Some of the most affecting scenes are between the two of them. Monica Bellucci has highly memorable cameo.

Most surprising is Blake Lively as the young Pippa, since my impression of her from the likes of Green Lantern and Savages wasn’t a positive one. She convincingly portrays Pippa’s vulnerability, and the ingénue quality that attracted Herb to her in the first place. Maria Bello’s performance as her deranged mother is intense enough as it is, so Miller’s choices of jump cuts to underline her fractured state is unnecessary and obvious. That’s not to say some of her stylistic choices are strong ones; she shoots the scenes of Pippa’s altered state of consciousness with appropriate subjectivity, which makes (for example) the scene where she visits the convenience store carry all-the-more impact. But she doesn’t seem to know when restraint would be advisable, perhaps as a consequence of having originated the material. Many of the transitions between time frames are overly self-conscious and seem to be shouting “Look at me!” as much as the star casting. Particularly ill-advised is an animated sequence that very nearly pushes the film into the territory of a clueless director trying anything that comes to mind.

In the end, Pippa Lee feels similar to many a mildly-diverting-but-quickly-forgettable indie flick. Any impact relates to the memorable casting rather than resonance held by the material.

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