September 16th, 2009
There are few times in my life when I’m honestly star struck. I’m sure that if I was in the same room as George Clooney, I’d be tongue tied and shaking in my boots, but for the most part I’ve met some very cool people in my time working in both television and publishing. However, last night, at the gala premiere of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I have to admit I was a little gaga over Rebecca Miller, Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright Penn. They were all just so luminous, humble, appreciative and lovely (and I didn’t even get to actually meet them).
Rebecca Miller’s film, adapted from her novel of the same name, remains hard to describe. Simply, it’s a solidly good film with great characters, an interesting story, and fantastic performances. It’s everything a movie should be, and then some. I know I’m a little biased because I really enjoyed the book and have been a fan of Miller’s writing ever since I saw Personal Velocity. I still remember this line every time I think of that film: “Delia Shunt was 34. She had fine, dirty-blond hair and a strong, heavy ass…which looked excellent in blue jeans.”
For girls with heavy asses, it was a revelation of sorts.
But back to Pippa Lee, the titular main character who finds herself marooned in a retirement community after her much older husband suffers from three separate, serious heart attacks. The consumate wife, Pippa spends her days planning meals and raising her kids. She’s paying penance, it seems, for her earlier, wilder years. Suffering from what she calls a quiet mental breakdown, Pippa starts walking, eating, even driving, in her sleep. The sleepwalking is just the beginning. Pippa’s carefully constructed life crumbles down around her but it’s not a bad thing. It’s surprisingly, enlightening, even fabled, in a way.
The press point that Robin Wright Penn keeps mentioning, both in the conference yesterday and her red carpet interview, is how there are so few roles like this for women in Hollywood. It’s a familiar theme: women of a certain age getting cast aside for younger, fresher models. Maybe we need more auteurs like Miller, women who not only write, but also direct, intelligent films that present complex, honest, flawed characters like Pippa Lee. Wright Penn inhabits the role in ways that brought it to life beyond the book. She has a range and depth of emotion that displays a tenderness toward life, for her kids, for her husband, even when they’re being utterly shitty to her. When everything changes and she does something so out of character (although not necessarily so when you look at her actions in the context of her entire life), it’s hard not to cheer her on. You’re utterly on Pippa Lee’s side and that’s entirely because of Wright Penn’s performance.
There’s a lovely chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Wright Penn. Equally troubled in his own life, Reeves’ character finds himself in his mid-thirties, divorced and back living with his parents. Their friendship remains the most honest relationship (for a point) in Pippa’s life. With all new friendships, what’s nice is finding out the other’s story without any judgment. That’s biggest difference between Chris and Pippa’s husband Herb (Alan Arkin). So it’s easy to see why and how their relationship develops. Plus, there’s a point in the movie where Chris says, “Hi there,” to Pippa and I must admit, swoon.
Also, Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin and Mike Binder do well as the supporting characters, and Blake Lively’s even passable as the young Pippa (but her “bite my lip” equals “emotion” style of “Serena” acting gets a little tired). I was surprised by Reeves’ casting but, like everyone in the film, he’s really good. I can’t say much else — it’s just a good film. That might sound trite but I honestly mean it. Usually, I’ll say that one should just read the book, forget about the movie; it’ll only pale in comparison. But here the film is an amazing complement to the novel — so I’m happily suggesting one should do both.