Jul 09

The Private Parts Of Pippa Lee

FT7 comments • 355 views

There is something strange about an author adapting and directing a film of her own novel. Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee is exactly this thing, and you wonder how long Miller wants to live in the head of her remarkably passive character. Perhaps the novel was written because she couldn’t get the film made. I can certainly see it being a bit of an ask for producers: a film about a woman who has seemingly given all of herself to her family having a bit of a breakdown. Its not quite grand Sirkian melodrama, but even if it were (and it gets close) there isn’t much of a market for said melodrama at the moment. Indeed this is what is often termed as woman’s picture, a small film about the life of a woman who is in a particular rut that is probably still a peculiarly female situation (stay at home, super-organised wife).

So Rebecca writes the novel, and then gets a chance to make the film. But how do you tell the story of how a woman becomes so quite and passive? Well with flashbacks and voice-over of course. I assume the book is strongly first person narrated by Pippa, but what may seem nuanced in a novel often comes off as hackneyed on screen. Maria Bello’s pill poppin’ momma, Julianne Moore’s fetish photographer. Did Miller really adapt the book so she could flesh out Pippa’s husband into an Alan Arkin type, played by Alan Arkin doing a perfect Alan Arkin (including dying!). That said, all the characters are well fleshed out, not surprising though if she had already fleshed them out in considerable more detail in a novel.

For all that, its an OK little movie, possibly due to the novelty of its mundanity. Its one of those films that knows exactly how to use Keanu Reeves (sparingly as an even more inert character than the lead). And the moral of the film is nice, that there may be more to the those in our lives we rely on. And it is all anchored around a good Robin Wright Penn performance. I just wonder if this story needed telling twice. Second time in a medium that it is seemingly not suited to.


  1. 1
    Tracer Hand on 7 Jul 2009 #

    The way you describe this it sounds almost Taiwanese, i.e. Edward Yang or Tsai Ming-Liang, with their wordless disquisitions on the privateness and intensity of workaday experience.

  2. 2
    Pete on 7 Jul 2009 #

    It could have been something like that, but everyone else around her talks incessantly and the flashbacks have sparing, but deliberate voiceover. And at the heart of it is a melodramatic plot which is anything but workaday. Its not a bad comparison, though one that Pippa Lee would fall down badly on (whereas it is robust next to say Sunshine Cleaning – though Alan Arkin survives that one).

  3. 3
    Mark M on 7 Jul 2009 #

    “Its one of those films that knows exactly how to use Keanu Reeves”

    This is a notion about how we talk about actors that I lean towards more and more heavily over the years: I think people use the idea of someone being “a good actor” as if it were a much less subjective business than it really is. But then Keanu, widely described as a terrible actor, as often been as asset to a film (and equally, often been a bad thing) – does acting quality come into it?

  4. 4
    Martin Skidmore on 8 Jul 2009 #

    It comes into it if you want an actor to do certain things, like play a character with complexity and depth – Keanu would be little use at that, but some can do it. There are also good-actor points for being able to cover a wide range. Those are usually what people mean by “a good actor”. I do think that is a dangerously reductive interpretation of what constitutes good acting, which may be what you meant. Keanu is in the tradition of Movie Star rather than Movie Actor, if you see what I mean, a Rock Hudson rather than a Rod Steiger. That is a sometimes underappreciated value.

  5. 5
    Pete on 8 Jul 2009 #

    A film where they thought they were using Keanu well, but weren’t was The Remake Of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Sure, he was fine as an otherworldly alien masquerading as a human, diffident like Michael Rennie. But when they wanted the role to subtly change and become more human, he seemed even more alium.

    Film which use Keanu well but he is often derided for (possibly for the films themselves aren’t much cop) : Much Ado About Nothing and Dracula. In both the characters as written ARE A BIT RUBBISH (Don Pedro needs to be a rubbish villain for the play to remain light, Jonathon Harker is a wet weekend in the book) so Keanu’s bemusement works in their favour.

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 8 Jul 2009 #

    keanu is grebt in bill&ted 1&2, and many of his other films wd be improved by tedding it up ESPECIALLY THE MATRIX

  7. 7
    Mark M on 24 Apr 2014 #

    So a mere almost five years later, I’ve finally* got round to expanding my thoughts on acting from this conversation and hooked them around Scarlett Johansson’s recent films. It’s still not fully worked out, though.

    *This ‘I’ll get round to that one day’ approach to things seemed particularly poor when I reread the comments above and remembered all the interesting things Martin Skidmore had to contribute on the subject of acting.

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