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Blast From the Past to Kingdom Come

MOVIE REVIEW
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

Still1
Screen Media Films

You’re sure to recognize Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn). She’s a pretty, devoted housewife, a regular at the stores near her Connecticut home. Her passivity — her devotion to the blandest of routines — blends her inextricably to her surroundings. They seem to have shaped every contour of her life; whoever she once was and wherever she came from buried beneath a sort of high-class suburban malaise.

Yet the power of “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” — which writer-directed Rebecca Miller adapted from her own novel — lies in the ways it slowly peels back those layers of disguise to reveal a very different, infinitely more complex soul. The filmmaker is powerfully aided by Ms. Wright Penn — who imbues Pippa with moving, quiet dignity — and a visual style that seamlessly blends past and present to portray the full measure of the character.

The narrative charts the course of Pippa’s first 50 years, from her unhappy childhood as the only daughter of a domineering mother (Maria Bello) through her disaffected, rebellious young adulthood (played by Blake Lively) and her years married to famed author Herb Lee (Alan Arkin). It rejects linearity for a stream of consciousness style in which memories intersect and come to the fore at unexpected times. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say she’s lived an altogether more eventful life than her appearance lets on.

Ms. Miller further complicates the picture by blending spontaneous dramatic moments with carefully composed sequences that emphasize the picturesque visual qualities of the iconography that’s dominated Pippa’s life. A dramatic mother-daughter confrontation clashes with scenes of Pippa and Herb uncomfortably inhabiting their sleek, modernist home. Pippa’s uncertain flirtations with an eccentric neighbor (Keanu Reeves), and the other steps she takes on her path to independence, stand apart from scenes in which she’s turned into a plaything, dressed up and subjected to glamorous photo shoots by her mother and, later, her lesbian aunt’s lover (Julianne Moore).

The two actresses create a seamless congruence in the character, ably shepherding her through these various uncertain periods. They look alike; but more importantly, they project the vulnerability borne out of a life spent going at it alone, with Pippa having been objectified and otherwise used by the people who are most important to her. Ms. Lively’s subdued performance, rife with the cautious passivity of a woman uncomfortable in her skin, gives way to Ms. Wright Penn’s, which hits similar notes but adds to them the depth of an extra 25 years of experience and a steadily mounting frustration with the status quo. Collectively, they give Ms. Miller’s creation a palpable human face, making Pippa Lee and her private lives resonate with a fullness comparable to the great fictional characters.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE

Opens on Nov. 27 in Manhattan.

Directed by Rebecca Miller; written by Ms. Miller, based on her novel; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Sabine Hoffman; production designer, Michael Shaw; produced by Lemore Syvan and Dede Gardner; released by Screen Media Films. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Robin Wright Penn (Pippa Lee), Blake Lively (Young Pippa), Alan Arkin (Herb Lee), Keanu Reeves (Chris Nadeau), Maria Bello (Suky Sarkissian), Zoe Kazan (Grace Lee), Winona Ryder (Sandra Dulles), Mike Binder (Sam Shapiro), Monica Bellucci (Gigi Lee), Ryan McDonald (Ben Lee), Julianne Moore (Kat), Robin Weigert (Trish) and Shirley Knight (Dot).

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