Here is a small, unknown fact about Private Lives of Pippa Lee: It is a physical impossibility to have enough liquid in your tear ducts to get through this movie in one sitting. If you were to cry every time a character lets go in this movie, you would likely drop a few pounds, purely based on tears alone.
It is also probably impossible to write a story about someone more depressed and distant than Pippa Lee (Robin Wright Penn). Despite an upbeat, cheery, quirky name, Pippa is a mess. This is a woman drowning in her own sorrow, and the whole point of this weepy is to be drawn into her anguish as she recounts her life.
From a drug-addicted mother, Pippa herself turns to drugs, and then carries out a misguided marriage with a man 30-years older than her (Alan Arkin). She is completely lost, and while this is well acted, there comes a point where it becomes too much. Private Lives goes for every possible scenario that could make someone cry.
People die, people divorce, medical conditions arise, children become distant, family life is broken, affairs happen, and friends reject each other. Short of a nuclear blast annihilating these people, not much else could go wrong.
To its credit, the mounting drama in Pippa’s life is tiring. It wears on the audience much like it does her. That is the point, and it succeeds in that regard. Despite giving advice to others to help them with their problems, Pippa never seeks out an answer to her own. The brief flashes of comedy contained within are handled well, more or less to offer a break from the constant mental assault.
Characters are continually piped into this story, some for only brief flashes. Julianne Moore is more or less a cameo, playing a lesbian lover to Pippa’s aunt. Ooh, there is one scenario that was missed: Lesbian love gone wrong. Maybe Pippa needs a solid appearance on the Jerry Springer Show?
There is no question Private Lives can be beautifully shot by Rebecca Miller, utilizing extensive focal tricks and specific color schemes. The ensemble cast offers their best work, but the film’s goal is purely to pile on the drama until is has nothing left, and then inexplicably end on a happy note. Apparently, you can drag people down for 90-minutes, but those final few must be positive to offset the anguish. This is a movie that doesn’t have the guts to go all the way.
Pipa Lee opens on an extreme close-up, and this AVC encode from Screen Media delivers what is expected. Fine detail is superb, definition pristine, and sharpness is high. For the rest of the film, the photography can alter the level of detail. Faces, anywhere outside of close-ups, are flat and even a bit processed. A thick grain structure exists, so there is nothing amiss with the transfer process, but likely the digital intermediate.
Environments, particularly those outdoors, can be outstanding. A blooming tree in the background of the shot at 55:49 is a stunner, revealing every petal and stem clearly. A bright contrast and natural color also help. Another great shot is at 11:30, which despite the artifacting on the red door, provides exquisite definition on the bricks and concrete road.
Numerous shots utilize a specific focus, intentionally making scenes appear soft or cause the contrast to bloom slightly. Black levels are generally deep, enough to establish a level of depth to the image. The majority of the film carries a naturalistic color scheme, with specific cuts moving into colder or warmer hues. These maintain accurate flesh tones, and in a way, create some impressive shades.
A DTS-HD effort has almost nothing to work with given the pedestrian sound design of a dialogue-driven drama. Some light surround ambiance can be heard outside Lee’s home, and a party near the middle of the film likewise adds some immersive atmosphere.
The score generally consists of light piano cues, nothing that will impress. The song over the credits is the only time the music is allowed to breathe and come alive. There a brief shot inside a womb where a heartbeat can catch on the low-end, and a gunshot is crisp at one point. Dialogue, the most important aspect of this effort, is consistently clean and audible.
Extras consist of a commentary with director Rebecca Miller and Robin Wright Penn, along with three promotional interviews that run a meager 5:36 combined.