(2009)4.5Phillip MaherWith this terrific film, Rebecca Miller announces her ascendance into the upper echelon of American directors and sends a message to every author who's ever lamented Hollywood's desecration of their book -- if you want it done right, do it yourself. Working from her own novel, Miller beautifully translates literature into cinema, allowing the necessary specificity of film to animate her title character in ways that surprise and delight, while retaining space for the audience's imagination. The version of Pippa Lee that emerges from Miller's script and the glorious performance of Robin Wright Penn is simultaneously definitive and open to interpretation. Pippa is Hollywood's most endangered species -- a character who could be human.
Pippa Lee is married to an older man named Herb (Alan Arkin), a successful publisher whose recent health problems have forced him to move, with her in tow, from New York City to a retirement community in Connecticut. In the film's first scene, Pippa is defined for us as "the ultimate artist's wife," but she lets the other characters debate her many merits while she herself remains notably silent. The rest of the movie represents her own revision of this fallacy, as she gradually unveils how her current persona as a wife and mother has effectively smothered her more fundamental experiences as a daughter, a niece, a runaway, and as a single young woman indulging in debauchery. The young Pippa is played by Gossip Girl Blake Lively, who glistens with a shy vibrancy that belies her desire for sympathy and discipline, even as she struggles to assert her independence. Miller elegantly sways between the past and present, so that Pippa's memories of her developing dysfunction are matched by the inexorable blossom of cracks in her contemporary domestic facade. Every scene ripples with tender insight or rambunctious humor, or often both, ricocheting off one another as Pippa samples the succulence of social transgression. Miller often brilliantly manipulates her mise-en-scène to enhance the entertaining antics of the narrative with deeper relevance. Watch what she does with the reflective blur of the trees on the windshield of a moving car, a trick which pays off nicely in the final scene.
Perhaps Miller's most impressive achievement is directing her cast full of stars into an ensemble, as Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, and (especially) Keanu Reeves all deliver wonderful supporting performances that serve the film, rather than their own careers. For a change, none of the performers seem to be auditioning for an Academy Award, though it would be a shame if Wright Penn and Miller did not receive nominations. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee taunts us with the benevolent hope that our personal anxieties might dissipate if we could find the courage to expose them to the world.
awards for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee on AllMovie