Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Lets forget about my eons-old promise to review all the theatre I saw in London; as penance, here's a new, full review!

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

As a character, Pippa Lee obviously fascinates her creator, Rebecca Miller, as she also claims screenwriting and directing credits on this adaptation of her 2007 novel, although its difficult to figure out exactly why this woman holds such interest for her. We begin with close-up shots of Pippa Lee applying make-up, the camerawork blurred and inconsistently focused, establishing her as an elusive, dichotic character, difficult to pin down. The primping is on behalf of a dinner party, which opens the film and clumsily introduces the main characters and their complex relationships to each other. Pippa and her husband, Herb, a big-shot publisher (Alan Arkin) significantly older than her. have recently moved to a Connecticut retirement community after he suffered three heart attacks. Also present at this housewarming are the couple’s children, Grace and Ben, Herb’s old writer friend Sam (Mike Binder) and his wife, a tremulous Winona Ryder. The script for Sam’s post prandial toast unsubtly signals to the audience the fact that this character has longstanding amorous longings for Pippa, praising her for her cooking and grandly bestowing her with the moniker of the Last Great Artist’s Wife. Blandly smiling, Pippa fires up a tray of crème brulee, her v.o. telling us that she’s sick of her current situation. One abrupt cut to the shocking-pink title card and I’m instantly hooked, eager for the rest of the film. Sadly, this sparkling moment of editing ended up being my favourite part of the film.

I can’t speak for its merits as a literary adaptation, as I gave up on the novel after 50 pages. I can discuss it as a film, though and in terms of narrative and structure, to use a colloquialism, it’s all over the gaff. From the opening dinner party, we move forward in time, watching Pippa’s attempted adjustment to life in a community where everyone around her is at least twenty years her senior. That is, until a neighbour‘s son (Keanu Reeves) moves back home after a messy divorce. Simultaneously, Pippa continues to v.o. the story of her entire life, beginning with her birth and moving forward chronologically. We learn that, in contrast to her bland, middle-aged middle-class appearance, Pippa’s history reveals a story of pill-popping mothers, runaways, lesbian aunts, a brief liaison as a softcore porn model and an eventual slide into the sleepless, drugged-up circles of the New York underground art world. Things certainly happen in each of these two threads - grown up Pippa begins to cultivate a habit of not only sleep-walking, but also sleep-driving, -smoking and -eating, young Pippa meets Herb and the two fall in love, leading to a disastrous lunch with Herb’s first wife, a convincingly destructive Monica Bellucci - but that’s about all I can say about them. Robin Wright Penn’s Pippa is a wan, watery-eyed half presence who occasionally lets slip a crude phrase, and in her younger incarnation, Blake Lively makes doe eyes and says very little. In the early stages of their flirtation, Herb says that the thing he likes best about Pippa is the ‘sweetness’ she has about her; very well, but what might be sweet in person translates as anodyne and dull on the screen. The dual narrative doesn’t really work; I don’t particularly care about Pippa in any incarnation and although there are links and through lines between the past and the present narratives, nothing is really illuminated by the interlocking storylines.

Drug abuse and suicides are not in themselves especially interesting or novel topics. What is interesting is how these tragedies affect people and have a knock-on effect on their relations and loved ones. Unfortunately, the film has little interest in developing characters relationships with each other in any but the most clichéd fashion, or in highlighting the longterm consequences which spring from tragedies. For example, in the early scenes of Pippa’s life, with Maria Bello bouncing off the walls as her speed-addicted mother, it might have been helpful or interesting to clarify what exactly Pippa’s father thought about his wife’s problem; whether he even acknowledged it, if he tried to help her, etc. Unfortunately the film is more interested in shoving a sequence of frenzied Mario Bellos at us, her husband relegated to a shadowy figure who occasionally appears at the edges of scenes. I suppose it is plausible that a husband might ignore his wife’s addiction to Dexedrine, especially if said husband is a clergyman who would risk attracting the derision of his congregation. Fair enough, I’ll buy it, with reservations. But as the film kept plonking wholly unbelievable and implausible characters, plotlines, acting choices and snippets of dialogue, I began to grow impatient and irritated with the whole shebang. Do sons - even fuddy duddy, soon-to-be lawyer sons - say things like “You’re too adaptable. The adaptable cipher,” to their mothers while clearing up dinner plates? Is it normal for prospective Jesuits to tattoo a large, tacky Jesus image over their entire chest and stomach? When we are asked to accept that a baby-faced girl who’s entire mannerisms and look seem culled from some Petulant Teenager central casting agency, is an accomplished and sensitive photo-journalist who can hold her own in war-ravaged countries…bitch, please. It might be a snide little comment on the Naomi Klein generation; at one point I spotted David sliding a copy of No Logo in his bag (which was extremely distracting firstly because it already looks terribly anachronistic, and secondly because this little dash of product placement is hilariously antithetical to the spirit of the book) but because the film attempts to squeeze far too much into its running time, this thread - the whole characters of Pippa’s children - are never allowed develop in any satisfying way, and we are left with unclear, half-formed impressions

Intentionality is a tricky subject in general, here. The audience I saw it with laughed profusely throughout the film, myself included. At one point I actually choked with giggles, but I could not for the life of me work out whether Rebecca Miller had intended this reaction. Some moments are clearly designed to be humorous - a woman, literally seconds from giving birth, flailing down a hospital corridor hysterical because she thinks she’s just given birth to a monkey, a certain cut to Winona Ryder huddled on a couch - but other images, lines, whole conversations translated onscreen as hilarious, apparently unintentionally. In a recent interview with The Times, Miller mentions she was surprised by the audience’s mirthful reaction:

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

That husband, obviously, is Daniel Day Lewis, who really should know better than to make an idiotic statement like that. Of course a film can be ‘too funny‘, if the subject matter demands a more reserved or reflective tone. This weird lightness of touch, combined with the overwhelming accumulation of tragic, ridiculous or unbelievable events, adds up to a film which veers wildly between tedious banality and bizarreness; that’s before we even get to the end, which is so predictable and dull in terms of plot, so uncarthatic and so clichéd in terms of cinematic execution, that it instantly wipes out any fond memories of any of the small handful of interesting moments - an incident in the back of Keanu Reeves’ pickup almost Lynchian in its perverseness, Julianne Moore’s brief, lecherous presence, some nice art direction and editing in Pippa’s early years - that might have endeared the film to me a little more. Instead, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth and the thought that if Rebecca Miller was a little more invested in creating a single, full, public life for her title character and a little less interested in shoving a multitude of supposedly-shocking, empty ‘private lives’, we’d have a much better film.