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Robin Wright and Keanu Reeves

"The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"; a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

It's a good thing part of the credits ran at the top of "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." Had they not, I would've thought it to be an unpublished work by Tennessee Williams. Actually, the novel and screenplay were written by Rebecca Miller. Miller also directed the film. She's the only daughter of the late, great American playwright, Arthur Miller.

Now I know what it's like to read a newspaper that's delivered by continental train, overland stage or slow boat from China, having seen "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." My gawd, the copyright date on the film is 2008! Two years, not in the making, but in just getting to a screen near me in California. And I thought everything was up to date in Kansas... er, Sacramento. Pippa, what took you so long?

Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

Since there's some Oscar buzz about Julianne Moore right now, it's probably been decided to take this searing and savvy film off the shelf. Seems as though I should say "not a minute too soon," but writing it might work better.

Ms. Moore, currently drifting around the top of my Oscar list for Best Supporting Female in "A Single Man," is cast, here, as something completely different and just as supporting. In "Pippa," she most convincingly plays a butchy lesbian.

However, "Pippa" is the extremely talented Robin Wright's movie. The film, in a rather bass-ackward but coherent way, reveals the skinny, at first, on this somewhat enigmatic woman as middle-aged and and married, then when she's in her teens and twenties, sowing even more than just wild oats. But the mature Pippa is the paragon of East Coast burbsville; married to an oldish but hip, well-off book publisher named Herb; so well done, of course, by Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine"). They have two adult children. Pippa is the devoted wife and mother, even though her daughter hates her.

Three Faces of Eve

This movie, possibly a work of therapy for Ms. Miller, is nothing like "The Three Faces of Eve," but there is a quality to it that suggests different warring personalities inside Pippa, and extrapolates that characterization to the other well-defined roles in the narrative; each trait or mask being walled-off from the other, primarily by something called denial. Except for a passing but creepy sequence that brings sleepwalking into the story, the many facets of the characters are, basically, the many guises that most human beings assume, depending on what circumstance they find themselves from one moment to the next.

Ah, you're thinking: bearing false witness and betrayal, right? Yes, there's a little of that in the film. Don't forget what I said about Tennessee Williams at the top. There's also a good deal of honestly declared love among some of the characters. Each role is complex and richly layered into a script an actor can really get away with some serious chop-flexing, if you know what I mean. Think Stanley screaming, "Stella!"

Mr. and Mrs. Lee have just moved to an upscale retirement condo. Herb, sharp as a tack, is sort of waiting to expire, as he's had three heart attacks, but wants to continue running his business, sort of. He feels Pippa, although she dotes on him, is just waiting around to hear the bucket make a noise when he kicks it. But, he's a smart, agreeable guy, sensitive to most of Pippa's needs.

Robin Wright and Alan Arkin

Robin Wright and Alan Arkin

Peripheral parts come in the form of Winona Ryder ("A Scanner Darkly") as Sandra, a close friend of Pippa's and Herb's, and Maria Bello ("The History of Violence") shows up as Pippa's mother, having what looks like might be her 19th nervous breakdown in flashes of Pippa Lee's girlhood. Bello bellows! Blake Lively (Sisterhood Pants I & II) is the young Pippa, and, like the excellent Bello, is fine as the pre-Herb, Pippa Sarkissian.

It's when young Pippa splits from home as a teenager and moves in with her aunt, Trish, played by Robin Weigert. (Remember Weigert as the frazzled, filthy-mouthed Calamity Jane, in HBO's "Deadwood" series.) Trish's regular roomie is Kat, the part Julianne Moore has. Kat shows young Pippa some new ropes (a side of her young Pippa didn't know she had) with Aunt Trish catching them by surprise during a photo op in their flat, one quiet afternoon.

Fifty-something Pippa accidentally gets to know her older neighbor lady's young, edgy and errantly neo-religious son, Chris. Whoops, it's Keanu Reeves, seen here in a very judiciously cast part. He fits it like an inflexible glove---tattoos and all.

Another small role, but a good one, and done by an actor who should be seen more often, is Sam, a writer friend of Herb's. Sam is played by Mike Binder, who was the lead in a now defunct, but, recommended HBO series, "The Mind of the Married Man."

The most striking thing about "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" are the seemingly multitude of emotions the picture evoked in me. During the first 30 minutes or so, I was seriously considering walking-out. It was unsettling and messed with my head, quite intensely. But, moving on, still intense and depressing in places, "Pippa" brought me to a reasonable zone of comfort and contained me to the finish.

Short moments brought forth deep laughter as the Winona Ryder role is written somewhat for humor, although Sandra may be the most pathetic character in the script, with Suzy Sarkissian (Pippa's mom: Bello), making for strong competition as the best neurotic in the movie.

Finally, I got it that Ms. Miller's film is about the special understanding that can exist between human females, even while they let themselves be pushed into all kinds of boxes, and that, if there is to be renewal, letting go is not only required, but paramount.

Arthur Miller would be proud.

"The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" official site.

Now playing in Tulsa at the Circle Cinema.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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