From all outward appearances, Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn) leads a charmed existence. She is the devoted wife of an accomplished publisher (Alan Arkin) thirty years her senior, the proud mother of two grown children, and a trusted friend and confidant to all who cross her path. But as Pippa dutifully follows her husband to a new life in a staid Connecticut retirement community, her idyllic world and the persona she has built over the course of her marriage will be put to the ultimate test.
In truth, looks are deceiving, and this picture-perfect woman has seen more than her fair share of turmoil in her youth. Embarking on a bittersweet journey of self-discovery, accompanied by a new, strange and soulful acquaintance (Keanu Reeves), Pippa must now confront both her volatile past and the hidden resentment of her seemingly perfect life in order to find her true sense of self.
How many lives do we live?
That's not some deep, metaphysical quandary, although if you want to take it there, have at it. No, what I'm talking about are the lives we live growing up. You know, how I'm sure you have often said "I'm not the same guy/gal I was in high school/in college/during that team building away trip last fall in the Catskills" and you genuinely mean it. As you grow older you also grow as a person, shedding the unwanted and unnecessary bullshit as you gain years and experience.
In Rebecca Miller's outstanding new drama 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,' these many lives are boldly dramatized. Robin Wright (once again free of the hyphen and Penn parts of her name) plays Pippa Lee, a woman married to a much older man (Alan Arkin) and living in the suburbs of Connecticut. She's looking back on her life (or her many lives), trying to figure out how she ended up here, in the idyllic suburban dream (one in which she, not coincidentally, sleepwalks regularly, sometimes ending up in the convenience store run by Keanu Reeves).
While I was anticipating her 'Private Lives' to be embodied by a whole host of different actors (what was I thinking this was, 'I'm Not There?'), the character is really only played by two actresses: Wright in womanhood and Blake Lively as the younger Pippa. Lively, from the television series 'Gossip Girl,' is absolutely electric in the role. Yes, she's adorable. But she also possesses genuine power, in the most tumultuous patch of her life, which includes living with her lesbian aunt (a subdued Julianne Moore), dealing with her bipolar mother (Maria Bello) and falling in love with the older Arkin (at the time married to a fiery Italian woman played by fiery Italian woman Monica Bellucci).
This may sound like some overheated suburban drama, one of sexual awakening that we've seen a thousand times before, and there is some familiarity in the proceedings, not only with more recent fare like 'American Beauty' but also in the dewy melodramas of Douglas Sirk (a specialist in suburban melaise) or Nicholas Ray. But that's not to say this is a bad thing. Miller's script is beautifully written, human and insightful. All the performances are spot-on (yes, including Keanu). And the entire thing is just a refreshing change of pace from the normal machismo that dominates American cinema. This is delicate, thoughtful filmmaking of the highest order.
That's not to say it's perfect, though. Occasionally, Miller's direction doesn't quite match her writing and we're left with some clunky sequences that don't work on a visual level. (Ditto her occasionally ham-fisted transitions.) But those are momentarily lulls in a movie filled with big, bright highs. 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee' is an investigation of one woman's history but it's also about the fractured lives we all lead and the versions of ourselves we've left littered along the way. How many private lives have you had?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This 25GB disc is Region "A" locked. It plays automatically, first running some trailers for some truly awful looking movies, and then depositing you at the main menu. That's about it.
The AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) on this disc is just crummy.
True, there aren't any technical issues to speak of (there are no instances of noise or DNR) and there isn't an overwhelming amount of grain, pops, scratches or dust. But the image here is soft, like whole swaths of the film are out of focus (which does a huge disservice to the Declan Quinn's often stunning cinematography, here rendered powerless). Detail lacks definition, texture is bland, and everything has a hazy, fuzzy look to it. There isn't a whole lot of black and when it does appear, it isn't particularly inky.
Elsewhere, skin tones generally look good and there are a couple of moments where the colors pop through the foggy overall look of the transfer, but more often than not I was thoroughly disappointed. There's not a lot else to say about this transfer, while watching it you're wondering if you're watching a new, 1080p Blu-ray title or some decade old made-for-television flick on basic cable. That's how bad it is.
Equally unappealing is the disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track.
This track is dialogue-heavy so things are kept front and center for the most part. While the dialogue is crisp and clear in some scenes, it also sounds muffled and in larger scenes with many speaking parts, like the opening dinner sequence, when people talk over each other, clarity flies out the window. (I had to watch that sequence a few times just to figure out what was going on.)
There are a couple of instances where ambience and atmosphere are attempted, but without much support in terms of surround channels. This is a limp noodle of an audio track. And no one is spared. Michael Rohatyn, whose twinkly score isn't all that impressive in the first place, sounds tinny and hollow here without the proper support.
There aren't any buggy technical issues, though, with the track mercifully free of hiss, pops, and other audio glitches, but it's a far-from-reference quality track. Actually, it's just no good.
In addition, there's an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish (muy bueno!)
There are only a couple of special features on this disc and they're both pretty awful. If you're looking towards the supplemental materials to help you decide whether or not to buy this disc on Blu-ray, don't bother. They're the same features on the DVD and just as bland.
The strengths of 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee' (and there are many - a superb cast with outstanding performances, a compelling lead character, genuine wit and insight into the human condition) sometimes wobble on a foundation of iffy direction from writer-director Rebecca Miller. She's a hell of a writer (and this was a novel of hers beforehand, too) but she could use some finesse when it comes to the director's chair. But no matter how good the movie is (and it's really, really good), it's almost completely undone by this haphazard Blu-ray presentation, with awful audio and video and equally horrible special features. Rent this disc for the movie, but you can skip just about everything else.