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The Private Lives of Pippa Lee ***

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Alistair Harkness pretty much savaged The Private Lives of Pippa Lee with his brief review today in the Scotsman. He thought it, like Away We Go, a conceited and disingenuous smattering of kooky/pretentious Sundancism. There’s more to it than that. Taking a quick look at the audience assembled for the UK premiere last night, with all the smart frocks and dress shirts, or listening to the first minutes of almost-insipid monologue, I braced myself for the worst. But as with that slightly-smug film from Sam Mendes, I was pleasantly surprised.

Private Lives Pippa LeeIt soon becomes apparent that Pippa Lee is not quite the nauseatingly barefaced narrator of Desperate Housewives that she seems. Rebecca Miller’s script and protagonist are smart and quirky in an unchallenging and accessible way. As Alan Arkin’s publishing mogul Herb Lee puts it, “it’s either highbrow for low brows, or lowbrow for highbrows.” Of course, if you over-analyse the film, its smarts are rapidly exposed as sophistic and paper thin; its characters fail to enlist empathy. But this is light entertainment!

More importantly, we find two of the most stupendous throwaway performances of the year, unexpectedly from Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. The former at last seems in his element as a compulsive truth-telling fuck-up former-Jesuit with a quarter-life crisis; the latter plays penitent for her real-life sins, as a comically pathetic miserablist who harbours a secret badness, and suicidal tendencies.

Robin Wright Penn plays the titular Lee, a woman who seems to have spent her adult live playing someone she is not. As you may have picked up, this film is full of contemporary talent, and we flit between Penn as the mature Pippa and her younger self as performed by Gossip Girl Blake Lively, exploring what produced the character so apparently dissociated from her world. Following unexpected consequences of her husband Herb’s developing senility, Pippa discovers an opportunity to change destiny and start anew.

Private Lives Pippa Lee2It all becomes a little scattershot by the time we reach the coup de foudre, Herb’s ex-wife’s suicide (Monica Bellucci, conducting a sinister lunch to finalize divorce arrangements). Further, there are obvious structural flaws to The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, and in particular I would like to omit from memory the pill-popping montage, 80’s boho Lively, and animated passage. Such indiscretions aside, what we have is a shrewd, mature yet idiosyncratic comedy which will entertain less demanding audiences outside the usual target demographic.

NB: I might question the motivation behind Miller’s portrayal of young Pippa’s liberating stint in lesbian softcore photography. Lively’s frolicking seems tuned to at once satisfy the political sensibilities of her older female audience, and arouse the less noble attention of their husbands. However, I was delighted by her depiction of smoking, which hasn’t looked so delicious on film in a long time.


The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Dir. & Writ. Rebecca Miller, Star. Robin Wright Penn, Blake Lively, Alan Arkin, Winona Ryder, Maria Bello, Keanu Reeves, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, etc., Elevation Film Works, USA, 2008
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