Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Crack cast brings Rebecca Miller's fine PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE to fruition

Of all the truly inde-
pendent filmmakers around these days -- people who take their visions and run with them, whether the audience follows along or not -- if you'd asked me which one would make a movie so simultane-
ously artful and accessible that it could qualify as an almost perfect exam-
ple of "independent-mainstream," Trust-Movies would never have suggested Rebecca Miller (shown, left). What -- the lady who gave us Angela, Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose? Good films all, but quirky, personal and just a little too odd for everyday. Yet with her latest, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, she's done just that.

This is a work that should rivet intelligent "art film" audiences, coast to coast, including the midwest and Florida -- plus Hawaii and Palin-ville. A feel-good movie that seldom feels like one as it bobs along, Pippa Lee gets you to that happy point in sometimes the strangest manner (you're laughing, even as you shiver). It also provides a screenplay and dialog that are witty and smart without trying too hard. Ms Miller is intelligent, all right, but she doesn't feel the need to rub our noses in it. We can relax and enjoy because there are plenty of surprises along the way, along with clichés usually upended --
and quite juicily, at that.

Sporting a cast diverse and accomplished, in which every member -- from the younger set (Blake Lively) to the older (Alan Arkin and Shirley Knight) -- does yeoman work, and a situation sure to command attention from at least half of the audience (a woman who's spent her life making people happy begins to address her own needs), Pippa Lee is a shoo-in for gals and might also provide an enjoyable learning experience for guys -- if they give it a chance. Miller has adapted the movie from her own novel, and it's full of delicious dialog: the on-target dinner party that opens the film with conversation and feelings that jump so believably from one subject to the next; the mother who says of her offspring, "My son was always sort of... half-baked." (Ms Knight -- shown above, left -- offers this one up, inflected to perfection.)

Basically a sad story, but one told with much humor, Pippa Lee is constantly zipping back and forth in time. We see a lot of this in films, but it is handled so well here that it keep us on our toes without confusing us. And where symbols are concerned, Miller has a lovely, light touch: "I don't want to make butterfly lamb anymore," notes Pippa, with a rueful blend of hope and disappointment as played by a very good Robin Wright Penn (shown above, left, with Mr. Arkin and two photos above, right). Roles like this don't come around all that often, and Ms Penn grabs it and carries it home. While there's been some talk of a Best Actress nomination, the film is such a finely tuned ensemble (it should win a few ensemble-cast awards) that it is difficult to single out anyone for praise without mentioning them all.

Miller and her casting director Cindy Tolan have beaten the bushes, roped in a cast to die for and then given each a great role to work with. Arkin is always fine, but here he get to show a side we've haven't seen: a sophisticated, powerful (and thus sexy) older man who's always been a chick-magnet and does not like to see this ability disappearing with age. The actor captures so much in this role -- intellectual and marketing "smarts" plus that undying sense of male prerogative -- that it makes his award-winning performance in Little Miss Sunshine seem almost one-note (but played very well). An actor like Mike Binder, while cast to type, does his thing then adds something extra. Winona Ryder (above), too, shines bright; it's good to see her working with an ensemble like this. Monica Bellucci, shown below, center, and gorgeous as ever, has but one scene: a knockout that she makes unforgettable.

Robin Weigert
and Julianne Moore appear briefly and steal the film for their time on-screen with Ms Lively (best-known for TV's Gossip Girl), who manages to hold her own in this starry company very well, thank you. If I were to give an award, however, it would go to Maria Bello, shown below, as Pippa's mom. Yikes. Another actress who's consistently wonderful, she does it again as one among only a few movie mothers who deserve to take a place in our permanent memory. Ah, yes: and Keanu Reeves. Of late (Something's Gotta Give, Thumbsucker, Street Kings), Mr. Reeves -- shown in photo at bottom, with Ms Penn -- has been doing work that is said to be a revelation. Is it possible that we didn't appreciate him in his earlier career, or have recent directors discovered how better to use him? Either way, he's a revelation once again. Miller puts his stolidity to great use: He's big, buff, sexy and real without pushing. Maybe middle age becomes him.

By the end of Pippa Lee, this critic was in the kind of giddy, benighted mood that only a really satisfying film can produce. Even rising from my chair and feeling the arthritis kicking in didn't phase me. Higher praise I cannot give. Except to say that the film's finale offer something truly original, hilarious and pertinent to our funda-
mentalist times. Has there ever been a better use of Jesus on film? I think not.

Opening via Screen Media (a company that's more and more on the radar these days: the fun Women in Trouble appeared a couple of weeks back and the dark Death in Love a few months ago) in a lim-
ited, but not too small release in various cities around the country, playdates for The Private Lives of Pippa Lee can be found here.

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