The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy

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