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Case Number 18433

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The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee

Screen Media Films // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 2nd, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Christopher Kulik's not-so-private childhood nickname was Skippa Pee. You should ask him about it sometime.

The Charge

The life you love may be your own.

Opening Statement

"To be perfectly honest, I've had enough of being an enigma; I want to be known. Like many people, I have lived more than one life. So, we're going to have to start at the beginning."

Facts of the Case

Now in her late-40s, Pippa Lee (Robin Wright, Forrest Gump) is coming to grips with the deadness of her marriage. Husband Herb (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine), thirty years her senior, is a critically-acclaimed novelist who has decided to move into a retirement community. Now faced with being a day-to-day nurse to Herb after he has a number of heart attacks, Pippa begins to breakdown and experience mysterious blackouts. Amidst all the sleepwalking, smoking cigarettes, and eating at weird hours of the night; she meets a charming younger man named Chris (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix).

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn Pippa Sarkissian (Blake Lively, Gossip Girl) was vivacious and free-spirited. After escaping from her pill-popping, out-of-control mother (Maria Bello, The Jane Austen Book Club), she took refuge with her aunt and aunt's lover Kat (Julianne Moore, A Single Man), the latter of whom makes S&M videos without the former's knowledge. When her aunt discovered Kat's secret one day, Pippa escaped into the netherworld of drugs and promiscuous sex with a circle of artists. One such artist is the middle-aged Herb, who became a mentor and father-figure to Pippa, eventually marrying her after his wife's suicide.

The Evidence

I'm not sure if you noticed, but 2009 turned out to be a banner year for woman directors. Veterans Nora Ephron (Julia & Julia) and Nancy Myers (It's Complicated) gave us their newest comic soufflé's; literature-lover Jane Campion came back into the spotlight with her exquisite romance Bright Star; Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt made her long-awaited debut with Then She Found Me; Anne Fletcher scored a box-office winner in The Proposal; and Drew Barrymore made a dynamic debut with Whip It, an energetic look into the world of roller derby. Most of the attention is now squarely on Kathryn Bigelow, set to become the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker.

Probably the most obscure of all these is The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, the third film from Rebecca Miller. The daughter of esteemed playwright Arthur (The Crucible), Rebecca emerged in the early '90s as a character actress in such dramas as Regarding Henry and Mrs. Parker & The Vicious Circle. In 1995, she left acting to write and direct Angela, which became a multiple award winner at Sundance. Her peak came in 2002 with Personal Velocity, a provocative tale of three different women all at a crossroads in their messed-up lives. Pippa Lee's story could have fit comfortably with them, as Miller draws upon many of the same themes and ingredients.

What strikes me about Miller's direction is her lyrical, almost poetic flow of scenes, particularly in the incorporation of flashbacks. She bravely uses voice-over narration to mesmerizing effect, preparing us for Pippa's ugly past, while also juxtaposing the various events in Pippa's life with seamless transitions. Miller's technique is occasionally Bergman-esque in concentrating on this woman coming to grips with her age, past, and yearning to experience life's spontaneity and freedom. The result makes The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee a fascinating character study full of humor, poignancy, and harmonious adventure. Sure, the conclusion may never be in doubt, but the journey makes the film memorable and rewarding.

Miller gives her protagonist a complex characterization; Pippa is sanguine on the surface, but feels lost and estranged from those around her, looking at her past like a bad dream. In the novel, Miller introduces us to her in a unique manner by having Herb's partner say during a toast, "I've known Pippa Lee for a quarter of a century, but I'll never really know her. She's a mystery, a cipher, something nearly extinct these days: a person not controlled by ambition or greed or a crass need for attention, but by a desire to experience life completely and to make life a little easier for the people around her. Pippa has nobility. Pippa has style." Indeed, her marriage has turned her into a magnanimous woman sans motivation or goals. The sleepwalking serves as a catalyst for her to re-examine what she's become, and Chris is the embodiment of Pippa's real desires in terms of the opposite sex.

The key in making this seriocomic slice of life believable is Robin Wright, who's sparkling and effervescent in the title role. Distant echoes of Carrie Snodgress' Oscar-nominated turn in Diary Of A Mad Housewife punctuate Wright's performance and, like Snodgress, it's remarkable how she's able to mix dimension and pathos in her quiet, subtle approach. It's her actions and reactions, not the dialogue, which flesh out Pippa Lee. Wright's never been better, and she's matched by Blake Lively, who imbues into the younger Pippa a sense of self-discovery all her own. Lively's scenes with her on-screen mother Bello are tough to watch, but both actresses play their roles just right in emphasizing how the relationship quickly self-destructs.

Surrounding Wright is a host of colorful actors. Arkin has found much critical acclaim in his autumn years, and he scores once again as this writer who could care less if he's dying, wanting only to find some kind of enlightenment in a stale marriage. Reeves is surprisingly deep, admirably jumping away from his usual blockbuster roles for something more nuanced. Unfortunately, Shirley Knight (as Reeves' mother) and Julianne Moore don't quite measure up, as they rarely get a chance to exercise their talent amidst an impressive ensemble. It's good to see they are still getting work, but Miller could have punched up their characters a bit more, as their contributions are pretty much thankless.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to two actresses, one making a comeback, the other an impression. Once upon a time, Winona Ryder was one of my favorites and it's sad her career took a real nose-dive almost a decade ago due to several media embarrassments. Despite sporadic appearances in indies for the past few years, her career is set to take off once again; she was moving in her cameo as Spock's mother in Star Trek (2009), and her role here as Pippa's best friend is positively electrifying. The other actress is the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire), Zoe Kazan, who's already shown excellence in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and Richard Linklater's Me And Orson Welles. She's wonderful again here in an equally smallish role as Pippa's daughter, desperately attempting to understand what her mother is going through.

Screen Media gives The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee more than respectable treatment on DVD. The low-budget quality is rendered nicely in the 1.78:1 anamorphic print, with appropriately subdued colors and a minute amount of grain. Black levels are strong, and flesh tones look natural. The 5.1 Surround track isn't exactly earth-shattering, but background noise is kept to a minimum and dialogue is easily discernable. Extras begin with an engaging feature-length commentary by Miller and Wright, who both give insight into the adaptation and details about the shoot, although the latter remains quiet most of the time. Also included are brief interviews with Wright, Arkin, and Lively; totaling almost six minutes.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I have one quibble which some may find trivial, but its Reeves' tattoo of Jesus covering his chest and stomach. Not that I have anything against tattoos, but the metaphoric significance is way too obvious on Miller's part.

Closing Statement

Low-key as it may be, The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee is a gem, worth seeing for Wright's powerful performance alone.

The Verdict

Miller and her film are found not guilty, while Screen Media is free to go.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 88
Acting: 95
Story: 94
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: Screen Media Films
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Subtitles:
• English (CC)
• Spanish
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genres:
• Drama
• Independent
• Romance

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Interviews

Accomplices

• IMDb








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