Elevate Difference

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

It's always a relief when the author of a novel decides to take its film adaptation into her own hands, especially if the author also happens to be a fairly seasoned writer-director for the screen. In The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller recreates her original character study in her own image, bringing the story of a misguided youth-turned-Stepford Wife to brilliant, riveting life.

The film starts off quietly, with the kind of domestic dinner party scene we've come to expect from tales of unfulfilled suburban housewives such as these, but the event actually turns out to be in honor of Pippa's fiftieth birthday. I must admit it took me more than a few minutes to accept Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump, Nine Lives) as a fifty-year-old woman; even with the aging makeup, the forty-three-year-old actress' youthful glow still manages to emanate. However, there is a method to this casting choice; it quickly becomes apparent that Pippa's physical appeal is an integral part of her character, a beguiling mask that has always brought her just as much trouble as it has helped her to avoid.

Pippa is a doting wife to her much older husband (Alan Arkin) and a loving mother to her son and daughter, even in the face of their disapproval, but there is little life or substance to her. Penn's interpretation of the character is a remarkable transformation, as she uses a much higher vocal register and carries herself with almost no conviction or purpose. Her Pippa—at least for the first part of the film—is a bit of a ghost, a stark contrast to the independent, inaccessible roles the actress has often portrayed in the past. When Pippa makes the terrifying discovery that she is having a nervous breakdown, the character is inspired to reexamine all the traumas that have led her to her quiet suburban life, and she—and Penn—take an acute turn right before our eyes. Pippa gives up her mask, revealing a resilient woman who is both piteous and funny as she drives herself mad.

If you haven't read the book (which I haven't), the film is delightfully unpredictable. I was pleasantly surprised to be transported to Pippa's unorthodox childhood, to spend so much time on her carousel of questionable caretakers, from her speed addict mother (the wonderful Maria Bello) to her über-cool, über-liberal Aunt Kat (Julianne Moore). As a Gossip Girl skeptic, I gave a huge sigh when Blake Lively first appeared as teenage Pippa, but she turned out to be surprisingly effective, standing her ground in the formidable shadow of Penn. A scene between Lively and Bello in which Pippa takes her mother's drugs as an experiment in empathy is absolutely heart wrenching.

Winona Ryder is also a surprising highlight as Pippa's extremely neurotic, needy, and often hysterical friend. She provides a hilarious counterpoint to Penn, sweating the small stuff very publicly while Pippa suffers a lifetime of disaster in complete silence.

To reveal more about Pippa's past (and future) would detract from the joy of watching it unfold on screen—and it is an utter joy, even as upsetting as the protagonist's circumstances sometimes are. Though I have yet to read Miller's book, I would imagine that Pippa's tale of rediscovery could not have found a better interpretation.

Written by: Caitlin Graham, January 13th 2010