Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"

Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee comes along at that time of year that studios seem to believe is the only time adults go to the movies. Sure, they're busy right now with Oscar bait (none of which, this year, actually seems strong enough to be called such), but every now and then a nice, quality drama gets slipped in quietly amongst the clamor for the Oscar crowds, family audiences, and vampire loving emo teenage girls.

While no one is going to mistake Pippa Lee for a great film, its strong cast and solid writing make for an overall pleasant experience, and a brief respite from the dearth of mostly disappointing films currently jockeying for Oscar attention. Honestly, it's just as good if not better than most of the Oscar bait, and while I'm by no means saying that Pippa Lee should be an Oscar contender, I think it's very telling of just how weak this year's crop of Oscar bait is.

Rebecca Miller grabbed Hollywood's collective attention with Personal Velocity in 2002, but while her films have always been critically acclaimed, she has resisted the urge to go big, and kept her focus on small, character driven dramas like 2005's The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Robin Wright Penn as Pippa Lee and Keanu Reeves as Chris Nadeau in Screen Media Films' THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE.
Her latest effort introduces us to Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn), a middle aged but still attractive woman who is married to much older man named Herb (Alan Arkin), a successful editor who is finally retiring and moving them into a retirement community. Suddenly, Pippa, a once free spirit finds herself a mild mannered, domestic housewife in an upscale retirement community, completely out of her element, and ultimately, completely lost. While her affection for Herb has kept her by his side, something just seems missing. And soon she is reflecting upon a life filled with youthful mistakes, obstacles, and tragedies that have brought her to this moment, and ultimately created the woman she is today, a free bird trapped in a cage with a plastic smile.

Then along comes Chris (Keanu Reeves), the enigmatic man-child son of her neighbor and close friend, Dot (Shirley Knight), who comes home to live with his parents after a fight with his wife. But there is much more to Chris than meets the eye, and Pippa is immediately intrigued, finding in Chris what she may have been looking for to bring herself out of this midlife slump once and for all.

Maria Bello as Suky Sarkissian and Blake Lively as Young Pippa in the scene of THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE.

It all sounds a bit standard, and honestly it is. But Lee and her fine cast do well by the material, keeping it grounded and real even at its most mundane. Reeves fails to really register, however, doing yet another version of his sleepy eyed zen-like love interest, which is frankly pretty boring. He doesn't provide the spark the film, or Pippa, really needs. But even the rest of the cast can't overcome the film's pat and cliched ending. It clips along at a nice pace, but by the time we reach the finale, the film suddenly wraps up its problems with a quick and easy fix that just doesn't ring true. Characters who had been bitter enemies suddenly make up with no catalyst to explain the change of heart. It's a weak and dismissive ending to an otherwise solid film.

There is an episodic quality to the film that doesn't quite work, but Robin Wright Penn's strong central performance and Miller's capable screenplay deftly navigate the familiar trajectory of the story (based on Miller's own novel of the same name). It's just a pity it had to cop out in the last leg of the race.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE; Directed by Rebecca Miller; Stars Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Blake Lively; Rated R for sexual content, brief nudity, some drug material and language.

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