Halfway through Rebecca Miller’s excellent The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I began to wonder whether actress Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) was channeling Robin Wright’s performance, or vice versa. Both women play the titular character at different stages in her life. It s a credit to Miller’s strong writing and focused direction that Lively and Wright, who, from what I gather, were not on set together, create one cohesive character. Their performances are just two in a movie that includes fine work by Maria Bello, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder.
In the present, Pippa Lee (Wright) is the loving wife and caretaker to retired book publisher, Herb Lee (Arkin). She is also the mother of two adult children, Ben, who respects her for all that she’s done for the family, and Grace, who resents her mom because she sees Pippa as a woman who never took any chances in life. Herb, a refined, educated man, is thirty years older than Pippa. After three heart attacks, his doctors have insisted he take it easy. As the film opens, Herb and Pippa have relocated to a quiet retirement community.
The move has unsettled Pippa and she questions whether she’s having a nervous breakdown, as she finds herself sleepwalking and conducting odd behavior. Pippa begins to recount pivotal moments in her life, flashing back to her early childhood when she was the only daughter in a family of six. The young Pippa becomes the confidant and friend to her struggling mother, Suky, who manages to maintain a crazed household by popping pills. As Suky, Maria Bello, the exceptional actress from The Cooler and A History of Violence, continues to prove that she’s one of this generation’s great actresses. In Suky, Bello gives us a woman whose spirit is slowly being depleted by the expectations placed upon her to be a dutiful housewife, good mom, and to keep a thin figure. Suky leans on Pippa, a role that the youngster relishes until she realizes that her mom is an addict.
By this point, Pippa is a teenager and being played by Blake Lively. When Pippa can’t handle her mother anymore, she runs away from home and begins a series of misadventures that include a stay with her aunt and her lover, played by Robin Weigert and Julianne Moore, respectively. Weigert, who has done a great deal of work on television (most notably her tragic turn as Calamity Jane on Deadwood), brings a great deal of soul and warmth to her small, pivotal role. Countering that warmth is Moore’s character, a cold, manipulative artist who uses Pippa for her own gain and gets the poor girl kicked out on the streets. Pippa’s life spirals into an endless period of drugs and partying until she meets Herb at a beach party and the two eventually fall in love. Lively captures the stoned, lost characterization of Pippa perfectly and shows more range than she’s allowed on her hit TV series.
Miller intercuts between the past and the present, using visual cues in the present to trigger a flashback. In the here and now, Pippa begins a friendship with, Chris, a divorce played by Reeves, in a role that suits his dramatic strengths. I’ve always felt that Reeves is a strong actor when a) playing a particular role (i.e. a laid back stoner-esque slacker/surfer dudes) and b) he doesn’t have to carry the movie. As he did in Something’s Gotta Give a few years ago, Reeves adds depth to his role and proves to be a perfect acting partner for Wright.
Chris has moved in with his parents at the same retirement community where Pippa and Herb live. He works at a late night convenience store, which is where he gets to know Pippa after she sleepwalks into the store one night. The two of them are kindred spirits, lost in the country and at a crossroads in their lives. Laid back and cool, Chris is the polar opposite of Herb, and although Pippa does nothing to further the relationship past being friendship, she slowly falls in love with him.
Robin Wright’s performance in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is funny, sad, and mysterious; it is also one of the strongest I’ve seen this year. Wright has a reputation for playing tough, independent woman. In this film she is a woman who has given up her independence, which has weakened her. Pippa has slowly become the woman she never wanted to be: Suky, her mother. Therefore, Pippa’s journey is one of reawakening and Wright’s performance is so subtle and wonderful you won’t want to miss it.
Although Miller’s screenplay is slightly flawed (the period in which Pippa conforms to Herb’s world is glossed over with voice over narration), the film is still a strong enough work to merit watching. Besides the acting, Declan Quinn’s cinematography is lovely to watch and Sabine Hoffman’s editing is seamless, especially the transitions from the past to the present. There are now wavy lines or dissolves to announce, “We’re going back in time.” Instead, the camera pans or dollies and in the camera move, the transition between time periods takes place. This is similar to the technique used in John Sayle’s great Lone Star, and it is quite effective.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is yet another fine independent film that slipped away after a limited release. With so much talent involved and so much quality on the screen, you will want to check it out. The DVD has limited special features, the primary interest being commentary by Wright and Miller. There are brief interviews with the Wright, Arkin and Lively, however these interviews reveal little very little about the film or the actors.
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