by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The library movie last night was an intriguing if not altogether satisfying work by Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller’s daughter, who established a niche as a writer-director on the engaging 2002 release Personal Velocity and has made two movies since, of which last night’s was the most recent: the 2009 release The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. This is the sort of movie that has some marvelous moments but doesn’t really gel into an aesthetic whole, even though it (unlike the anthology film Personal Velocity) has only one central character and she’s the focus of the whole movie. She’s Pippa Sarkissian (I wonder if Miller chose the name as a deliberate variation on “Sarkesian,” the real last name of Cher), later Pippa Lee (played by Robin Wright Penn), who exits her mother’s womb covered with a fine layer of fur — she sheds it soon enough, but not before mom has run screaming from the emergency ward, shouting, “I’ve just given birth to a monkey!”
Pippa has a rambunctious childhood and an even worse adolescence — she becomes addicted to prescription amphetamines after stealing a few from mom’s stash and falls in with a crowd of polymorphously perverse Bohemians in the 1970’s, staging all-female S/M pornography (just still pictures, not movies) in a series of sequences that are by far the best parts of the movie — before she finally settles down and marries a much older man, publisher (and frustrated writer) Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), eventually having two children with him, son Ben (Ryan McDonald, a boyish but heavy-set actor who doesn’t look at all like he could be the offspring of either actor playing his parents) and daughter Grace (Zoë Kazan — and yes, anyone conversant with the troubled but artistically productive relationship between Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan will savor the irony of Arthur Miller’s daughter writing and directing a movie and casting Elia Kazan’s daughter as an actress in it).
The crisis in Pippa’s life seems to emerge as a result of Herb’s decision to move them, once the children are grown, out of New York and into a suburban community in Connecticut, whereupon she has an ongoing nervous breakdown, remembers long-buried details of her previous life — including the luncheon from hell in which Gigi (Monica Bellucci), Herb’s first wife, confronts Herb and Pippa over their affair, pulls out a pocket-sized gun, threatens Pippa with it and then turns it on herself, committing suicide right over the lunch table. (This scene doesn’t really work as intended — it treads too close to absurdist farce to be believable as the wrenching drama Miller obviously intended — and it also doesn’t help the dramatic credibility that Monica Bellucci looks younger and considerably sexier than Robin Wright Penn.) The most interesting aspect of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is the quirky relationship (though this is the sort of movie where all the relationships are quirky) that develops between Pippa and Chris Nadeau (Keanu Reeves, who to my mind looked sexier here than in many of his self-consciously “heroic” roles), a failed Jesuit who studied for the priesthood and had a vision of Jesus Christ tattooed on his chest, who returned to the Connecticut community and moved in with his mother (Shirley Knight) in a relationship that verged on the Oedipal.
He runs into Pippa when she patronizes Food Mart, a convenience store where he works — supposedly she first ended up there when she was doing a sleepwalk across town, but as with most of the dramatic issues her script sets up, Miller makes precious little of this — and at first he’s just a relief from her boredom; he takes her on long drives around the town and, having grown up there, knows what landmarks there are. Later Pippa gets fired from pottery class (it’s presented as a joke but it’s just dumb, not funny) and comes home unexpectedly to find Herb having an affair with a younger, hotter family friend. That propels Pippa into Chris’s bed — though Chris’s mom bursts into his room and catches them before they can actually do anything — and then to a quirky (that word keeps coming up in connection with this movie!) scene in which they make love without actually fucking: Chris just sticks his hand down Pippa’s pants, fondles her clit and fingers her to orgasm (and Robin Wright Penn’s performance here is utterly convincing and even sexy — sexier than an out-and-out fuck scene would have been at this point). Then Herb dies of a heart attack and Pippa blows off the memorial, leaving the kids in charge of things so she can join Chris on a cross-country drive to heaven knows where. The End.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has its moments — Rebecca Miller remains a literate writer and, when she’s not imprisoning herself by the weirdnesses in her script, an accomplished director — but too much of it comes off as a Woody Allen movie without the wit, and aside from Chris there isn’t anyone genuinely likable in it, an all too common failing in modern films.