Dir/scr: Rebecca Miller. US. 2009. 96mins.
A grown-up love story that’s rambling, quirky and sharp-eyed about mid-life doldrums, Rebecca Miller’s cinematic adaptation of her own novel works largely because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. An across-the-board solid cast backs up Robin Wright Penn’s enjoyable central performance which, like much of the film, is believable without being entirely naturalistic. Still, this is not a sure-fire commercial prospect even on the independent circuit.
It comes on like a woman’s take on a Philip Roth novel (except with a sense of humour), and despite its oddball tone and upbeat ending could end up placing in the same $5 million region as Roth adaptations like Elegy or The Human Stain in the US. It may have better luck in urban markets abroad, especially in Europe.
It starts in quiet observational mode, with DP Declan Quinn using long lenses to pick out the guests at a small dinner thrown by successful publisher Herb Lee (Arkin, in fine form) and his much younger wife Pippa (Wright Penn), soon after their move from New York to a sleepy Connecticut retirement community.
Pippa doesn’t come across as a trapped wife at the beginning: she’s smart, ironic about their new home and seems to be in love with her grizzly-but-affectionate husband who has recently suffered three heart attacks.
But there’s something a little frozen about her smile, a little stilted about her movements. Soon enough she’s sleepwalking, catching herself on a closed-circuit camera as she raids the fridge for cake. At the same time we begin to explore Pippa’s unconventional past life through a series of flashbacks, pushed by some appetising costume and production design into a slightly heightened period style, that are seamlessly interleaved with the present-day action.
We meet Pippa’s addled mother (the ever watchable Maria Bello), a benzadrine addict who blackmails her daughter emotionally with her wild mood swings, and follow the teenage Pippa (Lively) as she runs away from home, shacks up with a sympathetic aunt and is induced to take part in lesbian sado-masochistic photoshoots by her aunt’s bad-girl lover (Moore, having a whale of a time).
Meanwhile, in the present day, Pippa meets Chris (Reeves), a drifter who has come back to stay with his elderly parents in the retirement suburb, and the seeds of an exit strategy are planted.
The film’s structure is ‘crisis and release’, but it pans out in quite a loose and rangy way, partly because it takes Pippa a good while to realise that she’s having ‘a very quiet nervous breakdown’, partly because the backstory has a momentum of its own.
As well as Moore’s tasty cameo there’s a nice turn from Winona Ryder as Pippa’s fragile poet friend Sandra, a needy, pretty wreck with a tendency to burst into tears. Also good are Pippa and Herb’s grown-up twin children, mother’s boy Ben (McDonald) and father’s girl Grace (Kazan). An early scene in which all four go out to dinner in a restaurant nails the skewed family dynamic with great economy of means.
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Robin Wright Penn