Film Review: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

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Berlin International Film Festival -- official selection, out of competition
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BERLIN -- "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" is the kind of film that most critics desperately want to like. It focuses solely on a beautiful and exquisitely complicated woman (Robin Wright Penn) approaching her fifties, and it sports a great cast of big-name actors. Plus, it's got Declan Quinn as director of photography, so the Connecticut suburbs in which it's set have never looked so good.

Unfortunately, writer-director Rebecca Miller's script tries so hard to be nervous and edgy that it ultimately succeeds only in making its viewers nervous and edgy. It's as though Miller threw a really loud party for all her Hollywood friends, but forgot to invite the audience. Anything other than a very modest theatrical release seems like a long shot, though the host of topliner names may add up to healthy business in the ancillary market, especially on DVD.

Pippa Lee, driven nearly crazy while a teenager by her neurotic mother (Maria Bello), finally runs away from home one day and dives straight into the netherworld of drugs and sex. Fed up with her decadent life, she meets Herb Lee, a suave publisher who's 30 years her senior, and they marry, have two kids, and live happily, if not ever after, at least for a good long while.

Now, some decades later, Herb's multiple heart attacks force the couple to sell their Manhattan apartment and move into a retirement community in Connecticut. Once Pippa meets bad-boy Chris (Keanu Reeves), however, she realizes that she herself has no interest in retiring from anything.

The acting is top-notch (if consistently over-the-top) and the direction is perky (not to say frenzied), but the script is just immensely too much of a good thing. Virtually every character in the film, and virtually everything they say, is so self-consciously quirky that viewers quickly start wincing when they should be laughing or crying. (A couple of examples: Julianne Moore as a lesbian dominatrix photographer; a spurned wife blows her brains out at the table during a dinner party.) This is the kind of a movie in which the appearance of a boring old stock character would come as a relief.

The film's basic structure is to alternate between Pippa's present-day life as a suburban Mom and her wild youth, but the transitions are often awkward and the polar opposite moods of each part tend to work against rather than reinforce each other.

The ultimate intent of the film seems to be to make some honest points about seeking one's own happiness rather than living for the sake of others, but it also wants to be outrageous and outrageously funny at the same time, and the clash of tones is fatal.

Production companies: Elevation Filmworks, Plan B
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Maria Bello
Director: Rebecca Miller
Screenwriter: Rebecca Miller
Producer: Lemore Syvan, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Executive producer: Jean Luc De Fanti, Jeff Sagansky
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Michael Shaw
Costume designer: Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Sales: IM Global

No rating, 100 minutes
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