Friday, November 27, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee **1/2

Director: Rebecca Miller
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci
Ryan McDonald, Zoe Kazan, Mike Binder, Maria Bello
Robin Weigert, Shirley Knight

How do you engage an audience and make them become interested in a character? First you have them believe said character has qualities we want to discover.
Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) is "a mystery, an enigma..." says one of her friends (Binder) minutes into the film.
So check, we have something to unravel.
Then you go and try to solve said mystery by putting together pieces of a puzzle. Therefore we go back in time as Pippa narrates her life to make us understand where she is now.
And since we don't really know what it is exactly we're trying to discover we let the characters engage us.
We learn how Pippa (played by Lively as a younger version) ran away from home, escaping her lunatic mom (Bello) and passive dad (Tim Guinee). She ends up living with her lesbian aunt (Weigert) and her girlfriend (Moore) only to end up becoming addicted to pills and falling in love with-and marrying-a publishing editor (Arkin) who's thirty years her senior.
And this is where we first meet her, she's just moved in with her husband to a retirement community trying to find something new to do, while learning that she might be going insane.
Written and directed by Miller (who also wrote the book the film is based on) "The Lives of Pippa Lee" is obviously its creator's lovechild and as such Miller has trouble knowing what to tell, what to conceal and she doesn't want to give us a bad impression about the people she so devotedly wrote, re-wrote and directed.
Therefore the characters are actually very interesting, even if sometimes they're stuck with ridiculous dialogues and selfconscious quips, but there is absolutely no real plot to follow.
She just keeps inserting new elements (even if they're old because they're Dickensian flashbacks) to make her heroine more appealing.
One of those elements includes new neighbor Chris (Reeves) who more than not turns out to be an excuse for Miller to pull all her deus ex machina moves.
But even with all her tricks and stylistic juxtapositions Miller can never really justify what she's doing and the "many" lives of Pippa Lee are reduced to her being single and then married.
Working with Wright Penn as top accomplice ("to be perfectly honest I've had enough of being an enigma" she teases) they make an event out of what turns out to be a not quite fascinating life.
The actress is at her best, she's tender and loving with Arkin, she's motherhood personified with the actors who play her kids (Kazan and McDonald) and she does her best Marcia Cross when she has to share scenes with her neurotic friend (Ryder).
Underneath her undeniable sexiness and appeal Wright Penn is above all bewitching. Try to take your eyes away from her and you won't be able to.
If only the movie had something else to say (we often wonder why do we need to know about this woman's life) instead of settling for facile resolutions and awkward quirk, then we would have been in for a real treat.
Because as it is, the movie comes, goes and Pippa is still as much of a mystery to us when the movie ends. "I feel like this is just the beginning" she says in the last scene, but perhaps only Miller is willing to go on this journey with her.


Luke said...

And what of her Globe chances? I assume rather grim, particularly based on your review, but who knows? Weren't they the only ones to nominated her for Forrest Gump?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Luke: I think SAG nominated her too.

Jose: For some reason despite its fault I like this. But you're absolutely correct. The film's story is bland, but I'm damned if those women don't do well. Wright Penn is charming and I couldn't help but be impressed by Bello and Ryder and all the other women [and Arkin]. It's fault and imperfect, but well intentioned, and enjoyable.

Luke said...

Ah, indeed. Apparently, upon closer look, the SAGs really love her! Nominated in '97 too... along with the totally Oscar-snubbed Pam Grier! But I digress...

Jose said...

I hadn't given too much thought to the film's award chances but as Andrew says the actresses are wonderful.
Even if the movie is very flawed I wouldn't be surprised if the Globes or SAG nominated Wright Penn. Heck, I'd even be happy for her.