THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE
DIR: Rebecca Miller
CAST: Robin Wright-Penn, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively,
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Maria Bello
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee looks like a real treat, especially for someone who loves actresses as much as I do, but take away the A-List cast, the few F bombs and the one briefly glimpsed pair of boobs and what you’re left with is a deeply average Sunday teatime TV weepie.
Based on Miller’s novel, the film tells the story of the titular Pippa (Lively and Wright-Penn), focusing on her at 50, embarking on a new life in a retirement community with her much older husband Herb (Arkin), her attraction to a 35 year old man (Reeves) staying with his parents in their retirement home. There are also extensive flashbacks to Pippa’s teenage rebellion, which leads to her meeting Herb. Miller does use these flashbacks well, rather than roughly chop the film in two she lets Pippa’s background be slowly revealed, colouring in the character more as time goes on. Visually the transitions are nicely done too, often shifting time periods within a single smooth shot, so that there is an easy flow between the stories.
Miller and the film also benefit from a pair of excellent performances by the actresses playing Pippa. Having never seen Gossip Girl I was completely unaware of Blake Lively before seeing this film, but I’ll be keeping an eye on her. She’s extremely effective as the 16-year-old Pippa. Herb says that he sees an innate goodness in Pippa, and Lively really manages to bring that through, while playing the troubled teen with freshness and reality. There’s a real vitality to her performance that is truly enjoyable to watch. Robin Wright-Penn, at a well-weathered 43, is too young and too beautiful to play the 50-year-old Pippa, but she still acquits herself beautifully in what is a frustratingly limited role. Pippa has become a simpering bore at 50, all placid smiles and sighing delivery. She’s irritatingly written, but Wright-Penn’s underplayed performance in a series of events that invite scenery chomping make the character bearable (even if you do rather long for more time with the more vital younger Pippa) and brings a measure of reality that isn’t really there in the dialogue.
The script is the main problem with this film. First off it is incredibly bitty. The huge cast (most of whom acquit themselves well) is poorly served by writing that gives them a series of clichés to spout, generally for less than 10 minutes apiece. Julianne Moore, for example, does her best work in some little while as a photographer who is drawn to Pippa, but she’s in two scenes, and has perhaps ten lines. The whole thing feels unfinished; scenes cut short, years missed out. Annoyingly it is probably those missed years that would be the most interesting - the slow transition from the party girl to the ghostly, frightened 50-year-old - that’s a movie I haven’t seen before, which is more than I can say for this one.
Practically every scene here is a cliché, and every beat of the plot is one we can see coming several miles off. Pippa’s leaving her older husband, but she’s forgotten her car keys and has to come back; guess what she sees when she re-enters the house. Pippa tells Herb she thinks their friend (Ryder) is having an affair; guess who she’s having an affair with. At one moment in the film I thought to myself; ‘well, at least they aren’t taking the easy, sentimental route with this mother/daughter relationship’. Guess what happened in the very next scene. It’s so rote and so familiar that to make any sort of impression The Private Lives of Pippa Lee would have to be outstanding, and it just isn’t.
Wet. That was the first word that came to mind when I was asked how this film was. It just hangs there, its dull, simpering, over-earnest characters whining at us for a couple of hours in breathy voices. It hammers emotional buttons with the desperation of a man who just launched a nuclear missile by accident, and can’t find the abort switch, but it doesn’t connect or convince, at least not in the present day scenes. The flashbacks are better; the brilliant Maria Bello does effective (if no less cliché) work as Pippa’s mother and there is a vibrancy to this part of the film that just makes it more engaging.
Directorially, with the exception of those transitions from present to past and back, Miller’s work is resolutely adequate. There’s nothing especially cinematic on show here, and the sense of period is badly muffed (Pippa grows up in the late 50’s and 60’s, but by the time she’s 16 it looks like the 80’s). It’s hard to dismiss the film as a whole though, there is some fine acting, notably a great turn from Blake Lively, and another strong display from Alan Arkin. To get at those performances you have to wade through two hours of clichés and suffer Winona Ryder’s wailing, Monica Bellucci’s struggles with speaking English while also attempting to express emotion and Keanu Reeves at his most lunkheaded. If you’ve nothing better to do it’s just about worth the time for those performances.
DIR: Larry Charles
CAST: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten
British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen scored a critical and commercial hit with Borat three years ago, now he’s back, bringing his third and final major character; Gay Austrian TV presenter Brüno to the screen in the same part scripted/part documentary style that he used for Borat. Is nice?
You have to give Sacha Baron Cohen some credit. First of all he’s clearly a gifted character actor, as ludicrous as Brüno is Baron Cohen does completely and convincingly vanish into the character’s skin, and there must have been prolonged periods – 24 hours or more – in which he would not have been able to break character or accent. Secondly he demonstrates an almost suicidal devotion to his craft, putting himself in a lot of situations that clearly put him in harm’s way (walking around the Middle East dressed in an extremely revealing pastiche of Hasidic dress, for example). There’s clearly both talent and intelligence (the two seldom fail to go hand in hand) at work here.
That is also pretty much the problem with Brüno, because it boggles the mind that someone so clearly smart and capable as Baron Cohen has created something as pathetically retrograde, as sniggering, as haphazard, as pointless and as outright unfunny as Brüno is. Just for the record, I laughed in this film. Once. It was a quick visual gag about Mel Gibson, and I laughed. Brüno is 82 minutes long, by this count 81 minutes and 59 seconds of it are completely laugh free. Baron Cohen’s brand of ‘gotcha’ comedy struck me as cruel when I saw Borat, mainly because most of his victims simply didn’t deserve the sneering treatment they were getting (remember the dinner party where Borat shits in a bag and brings it to the table and his hosts still treat him with generosity?) Brüno is no different in this respect.
Almost all the genuine documentary footage falls flat, because it simply doesn’t expose the homophobic attitudes that Baron Cohen is trying to provoke. Scenes such as that with a psychic, who sits passively by while Brüno mimes an elaborate and graphic series of sex acts, and then shakes his hand and wishes him luck don’t make any sort of point, and the joke never advances beyond playground humour about gay sex. I never thought I’d side with a minister who attempts to ‘convert’ gay people, but the first of them that we see comes across as genuine and caring (if misguided) and even when Brüno compliments him on his ‘blowjob lips’ he never gets the rise he’s clearly after from this basically nice man. There’s another sequence in which Brüno goes hunting with a group of Southern men, and we’re clearly meant to be appalled when one of them tells him to fuck off and calls him queer. You know what, I’m by no means homophobic, but if I’m sleeping in a tent and a naked gay man I barely know wakes me up at 4am, asking to be allowed to sleep next to me and carrying condoms that’s almost excatly how I’ll react. There’s so much of this it’s just depressing. Half of the film seems to be Baron Cohen going into a situation, behaving like an extreme arsehole and then asking us to be shocked and appalled when (usually after a great deal of provocation, even in what actually makes the edit) people turn on him. Well, I’m not buying it, most of these people are behaving perfectly reasonably and to hold them up to the ridicule of millions is cruel. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it certainly isn’t funny.
Even when Baron Cohen does chance upon a deserving victim he seldom really slam-dunks them. An encounter with the Westboro Baptist Church (the horrendous people who run the website God Hates Fags) should have been provocative, but even by walking past them chained, half naked, to another man, the worst Baron Cohen can catch them doing is trying to avoid him. You know what, that’s what I’d do too. The one time it really does come off is in an extended sequence in which Brüno interviews the parents of babies he’s attempting to cast for a photoshoot. The questions, clearly improvised, become more and more outlandish, and the parents barely bat an eyelid. He ends up telling one mother that her baby, dressed as a Nazi, will be pushing another, Jewish, baby in a wheelbarrow towards an oven - if that’s okay. With barely a hesitation the Mother says “as long as she gets the job”. That’s shocking, it’s appalling, it’s sad and it calls into question that person’s ability to parent. It’s not funny though, it’s tantamount to child abuse and it’s just not funny. There’s a line in the reprehensible Observe and Report in which someone says, “I thought this would be funny, but it’s actually kinda sad”. That’s what Brüno is like; it shoots for funny, misses and hits the bullseye on the next target, marked ‘depressing’.
About a third of Borat was staged and scripted, the ratio seems to have been reversed for Brüno, with the bulk of the film playing as if it is scripted and set up. Sequences like the talk show were set up, and it is certainly debatable whether the audience is real or extras who are in on the joke, certainly their reactions (especially to the obviously mocked up pictures of Brüno and his baby) seem far too perfect and cued to be entirely authentic. The same is true of sequences involving Brüno’s agent (mostly because, after his audition, there is no way that an agent would take Brüno on unless he were in on the joke) and the swingers party at which Brüno is beaten by pornstar Michelle McClaren. These scenes all simply show up the fact that Baron Cohen was unable to generate enough genuine material to put a feature length film together.
While it tries desperately to shock Brüno never even manages that, its attempts to make us gasp at the various sex acts on display come across as simply juvenile (and, frankly, I’ve seen Shortbus, and when you’ve seen one man hum The Star Spangled Banner into another man’s arse, it’s tough to be shocked by a few clearly pretend bits of gay sex). For all the posturing and the insistence that Brüno is trying to expose and ridicule homophobia it seems that most of the time we are being asked to laugh at the character (who is the most retrograde flaming stereotype seen on screen in some while), to snigger at his sex life. It’s not outright homophobic perhaps, but it could be taken as such. The bottom line (stop sniggering at the back) is that Brüno, while it is sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, sometimes appalling, sometimes depressing is funny for exactly one second. That isn’t good enough in my book.