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Excellent Adventures

Three for the keeper file: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Up in the Air, and Me and Orson Welles.



The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Proof, and now The Private Lives of Pippa Lee: three movies that raise the bar for the so-called "chick flick" and, perhaps not coincidentally, three movies that you'll have to search out. They're worth the extra effort. All three were written by actor turned novelist-screenwriter-director Rebecca Miller, who played in such films as Regarding Henry and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle before changing careers. Best move she ever made.

Pippa Lee is Miller's latest and maybe her very best, the story of a woman (played by Robin Wright Penn) with an interesting life that's getting more interesting — as in stressful, dangerous, borderline hysterical — by the minute. Flashbacks aplenty. We see her growing up the unwanted daughter ("I had a monkey!") of a speed-freak mother (hellacious Maria Bello) and hitting the road early. Rebellious young Pippa (free-spirited Blake Lively) gravitates to New York and moves in with her Aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) and Trish's bohemian lover Kat (Julianne Moore). Lusty Kat and another friend produce quickie nudie films in their apartment while Trish is at work, and Pippa joins in. The flashbacks occur intermittently, and each of them is worth a feature film of its own.

After a few "lost" years during which she cultivates her taste in drugs, a more sophisticated Pippa (Wright Penn) finds herself traveling with the literary fast crowd. She attracts the interest of Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), a successful book editor several years her senior. They marry, and their children, Grace (Zoe Kazan) and Ben (Ryan McDonald), view their mother with more or less the same contempt Pippa reserved for her own mom. So a generation has gone by and the living standard has been raised a little, but no real progress has been made in the emotional department.

As the story opens, Pippa and Herb are settling into their new home in a suburban retirement community in "Wrinklebury." Pippa is trying to make the best of it, but the boredom is tremendous. Enter Chris (Keanu Reeves), the "half-baked" son of one of the Lees' neighbors, Dot (Shirley Knight), who has moved in with his mother after making a pudding of his life. He takes a job running the local convenience store. Pippa senses a kindred spirit. All the midnight bulimic binges, suicide attempts, sleepwalking, marital chicanery, and little pills don't mean a thing compared to the thrill of being a middle-aged woman sneaking through the bedroom window like a teenager in heat.

Every single one of the actors nails her or his part, beginning and ending with Ms. Wright Penn's magical, chimerical Pippa. Arkin, of course, is a national treasure. Bello, Moore, Winona Ryder as the obliging Sandra, lioness Monica Bellucci as Herb's pistol-packing ex-wife, Kazan as Pippa's fotog daughter en route to Baghdad — each character is pitch perfect. And Reeves' Chris, Pippa's soul mate in the perpetual-childhood clubhouse, is his best role since A Scanner Darkly — he deserves better than to be a 'toon. Pippa and Chris stubbornly refuse to grow up. Hooray for immaturity.

It opened last week too late for review, but the Jason Reitman-George Clooney Up in the Air is one 2009's best films and deserves a more than a footnote.

Reitman, who warmed up with Thank You for Smoking and hit it out of the park with Juno, crosses decisively into Clooneyville — that wised-up state of mind where screen entertainment strives for a little extra. George Bernard Shaw once said that if you must tell the truth to people, make them laugh or they'll kill you. Clooney, Reitman, novelist Walter Kirn, and screenwriter Sheldon Turner take the skeptical old playwright's advice in the story of Ryan Bingham, corporate hatchet man.

Ryan (Clooney) makes his living jetting to dull Flyover Land towns like Omaha and Tulsa, firing redundant employees as a contract "termination specialist." Business is good for Ryan and his company, which means it's bad for everybody else. On his boss' orders, he is joined on his rounds by a newly minted corporate piranha with a deceptively innocent face, Natalie (Anna Kendrick from the Twilight films). She's observing Ryan, learning to apply the coup de grace as a step to performing it telephonically, on a computer screen instead of in person. Saves money. Sweet.

Ryan and Natalie, plus another business traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga), with whom Ryan starts an expense-account cocktails-and-nookie affair, tell themselves convenient little fictions to compensate for their distaste toward their jobs. Natalie's crutch is that she's building a future life with her boyfriend. For Alex, whom we at first mistake for a hotel-lounge hooker, the thrill of no-strings business-trip sex is enough. Ryan, however, with his years on the road and his literally millions of air miles, has constructed quite a pragmatic fortress for himself. He's Mr. Empty Backpack, the guy who can fit his entire life into a carry-on and zip through the check-in before you, poor slob, have gotten into the departure hall.

The montage of canned workers ("This is America. This is what we were promised") is naturally heartbreaking. The airports are crowded with suits and soldiers. Product placement attains new heights. Ryan takes Alex on a date to a relative's wedding in Wisconsin and they both learn something, or rather relearn it. Even sharks have feelings, it seems. Nobody plays the guilty corporate insider better than Clooney. He's in the Ten Million Mile Club of actors who enjoy slipping social messages into nominally lightweight sitcoms and procedural dramas about office workers getting even with their corporate masters. Let him through. He's got a titanium ticket.

Once upon a time, actor Vincent D'Onofrio was the Orson Welles impersonation champ. He's been dethroned. In director Richard Linklater's warm and cozy nostalgic drama Me and Orson Welles, Englishman Christian McKay walks off with the prize, and he'll be difficult to top — the 37-year-old McKay's got the heft, the face, the voice, and the mannerisms. No telling how many times he's watched Citizen Kane.

Linklater's backstage story focuses on the Mercury Theatre's 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar, the run-up to Kane and an important step in what was to become the Welles legend. Through the eyes of an aspiring young actor named Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron) and his would-be girlfriend Sonja (Claire Danes), the theater company's front office assistant, we discover that everyone involved was horny: Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Sonja, Richard, and Welles, on the make for stardom. One way or another, everybody gets laid.