The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Directed by Rebecca Miller
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, commences with a dinner party for the ages, a housewarming fete in a Connecticut retirement community featuring butterflied lamb, Cornel West, and a round of cordial toasts. A writer friend declares the hostess of the title (Robin Wright Penn) "the very icon of the artist's wife" before Pippa retires to the kitchen to torch an impressive formation of crème brûlées. However, Pippa—married to a heart attack-prone publisher, Herb (Alan Arkin), with two grown children, a prickly war photographer (Zoe Kazan) and a steadfast law student (Ryan McDonald)—also has the tendency to ravage decadent chocolate desserts while sleepwalking. Though it initially appears Pippa has prematurely, though pleasantly, arrived at a valedictory stage in her life, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and the pudding here is smeared all over the walls.
Pippa's midlife crisis involves not only the degradation of elaborate homemade desserts, and the sneaking of the occasional cigarette, but also a widening rift with her husband, a flirtation with a burnt-out man-child (Keanu Reeves), and a confronting of her past through flashbacks, in which she runs away from her Dexedrine-bonkers mother (Maria Bello) and then embarks upon her own more appealingly bohemian spell of pill-popping. On the whole Pippa Lee is another suitably engrossing adaptation of one of Miller's own books (Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose were her previous two films), but it too frequently veers off-balance. Miller often punctuates genuinely moving moments of human drama with glibly quirky images—an animated marathon sequence, or an image in which a rainbow pharmacopoeia pours forth into a cereal bowl. Solutions to the age problems presented by the nonlinear, decades-spanning narrative are also baffling, resulting at one point in a nude Blake Lively, playing the young Pippa, draped over a green-robed, white-toupeed Arkin (looking strangely Bloomberg-like), but perhaps it's to the film's credit that this pairing seems most ridiculous in retrospect.
To give her tonally turbulent film some stability, Miller counts on fluid in-camera flashback transitions and Pippa's placid looks of amazement, convincingly conveyed by Wright Penn, at how even her own keel turns out to be through so much domestic turmoil. It doesn't work, but there's nonetheless a lot to admire about The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Given the initial portrayal of Pippa as an eminently composed hostess, it's clear that Miller intends her character as a cusp-of-50 everywoman, albeit a very well-heeled one. But it's a testament to Miller's skill as a writer, and Wright Penn's as a performer, that Pippa never seems like anything other than a person.
Opens November 27