THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (Rebecca Miller, 2009)

The other times I’ve seen her I have found Robin Wright a morose and monotonous actress, but she is wonderful—wonderful—in the title role of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a very funny, quirky comedy that writer-director Rebecca Miller has adapted from her own novel. Miller presumably deserves considerable credit for Wright’s richness in this role, Wright’s sly balance of passivity and engagement attuned to Pippa’s slips from the present into the past of her childhood and adolescence; no generally lousy U.S. actress has so surprised me with excellent acting since Joan Allen, directed by Sally Potter, in Yes (2004) and Winona Ryder, directed by Richard Linklater, in A Scanner Darkly (2005). (More about Ryder below.)
     Indeed, Miller and Wright’s Pippa is passive also in the present: one, because she reflects so heavily on her past; and two, psychosymbolically, as she, on at least one occasion, literally sleepwalks. What in her past is thus cursing this 45-50-ish wife of much older Herb, a retired publisher, and mother of grown children? Her own mother zoned out on drugs and additionally suffered from her—Pippa’s—lack of sympathy, which Pippa herself is now suffering from her daughter. Teenaged Pippa’s flight from home may have contributed to her mother’s fatal heart attack, contributing to Pippa’s baggage of guilt. Pippa lost a surrogate mother to add to her loss of her actual mother when Aunt Trisha sent her packing, after taking her in, upon discovering that Pippa was posing for her—Trisha’s—live-in-lesbian lover Kat’s pornographic photography shoot. More guilt awaited. Before Pippa married Herb, his current wife blew out her own brains with a gun right in front of twentyish Pippa. Back in the present, Pippa discovers Herb’s affair with Sandra, a close married friend of hers.
     Mind you, the film is a comedy; Miller lights upon and quickly leaves a moment such as the lunch-table suicide before it can congeal into melodrama. But the comedy also derives from Miller’s filmmaking, which by hewing to Pippa’s viewpoint—Pippa also provides voiceover—creates delightful sequences of images of especially Chris Nadeau, Pippa’s 35-ish neighbor and eventual lover, which zap him from wishful fantasy to reality. Miller has made a real film, one that visually expresses its riotous sense of humor.
     Nearly all, therefore, is well. Ah, but there are two problems. Miller has kept her focus a little too close to the characters. As a result, Pippa’s crises and disappointments are set into a familial or extended-familial context, but not a social, feminist one that might more profoundly explain the dissatisfaction of and tensions between and among females in the American social landscape. (This was a problem, also, with Mike Nichols’s 1967 The Graduate.) If Miller had only gone further, then, she might have created something of the order of Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941). The other problem is a key performance. While one is happy that we flash back to see how Pippa and Herb came together as a couple, Alan Arkin has failed to make sense of Herb. Perhaps there’s no making sense of Herb.
     On the other hand, the other performances are, at the very least, first-rate. Wright is, as I’ve implied, much better than that. Also making outstanding acting contributions are Blake Lively, who plays the adolescent Pippa, Keanu Reeves, who plays troubled Chris (in a parallel instance, Chris’s wife has cheated on him with his best friend), Shirley Knight, as Chris’s mother, who declares her “disappointment”(!) that pal Pippa is sleeping with Chris, Winona Ryder, who is screamingly funny as self-pitying Sandra, and Julianne Moore, who perhaps takes the cake as Kat.
     I was not expecting to like this one. I love it, though. And I love that Keanu’s sensitive, soulful, sparklingly witty Chris gets the girl.

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