By Jonathan Kiefer
It’s called The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, but isn’t there something terribly public about getting stretched across a movie screen in front of hundreds of people at a time?
That vaguely hypocritical contradiction seems appropriate for the self-discovering and coyly self-revealing protagonist of writer-director Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of her own novel. From a few different angles, Miller shows us how settling down and settling in are just other ways of becoming unsettled.
Robin Wright Penn plays the dutiful, desperate housewife of a successful Manhattan book publisher named Herb (Alan Arkin), who’s older than her by enough years that it matters a lot when he’s due for the retirement home. For her, it’s the mid-life crisis moment. As Pippa elaborates in narration, Herb had been her rescuer before; now he’s brushing off multiple heart attacks and bristling at the encroaching end of life. After years of smiling service as his consort, Pippa looks like she could use some saving again.
Cue the formative-experience flashback scenes, through which we meet Blake Lively as the teenage Pippa and Maria Bello as the pill-popping mom from whom she fled—first to her lesbian aunt (Robin Weigert) and the aunt’s bondage-photographer lover (Julianne Moore), and then to the wayward, druggy, go-go-dancing haze in which Herb found her—that is, found her worth ditching his marriage to a live-wire wife (Monica Bellucci) who certainly would not go quietly.
It is with Herb’s taste for lost and slightly crazy ladies in mind that we keep a watchful eye on Pippa’s batty young friend, played by Winona Ryder. But meanwhile, before we can say “overstressed symbolism,” the present-day Pippa is walking in her sleep—making a mess of her immaculate suburban kitchen or wandering over to the all-night convenience-store checkout counter, which happens to be manned by the no-nonsense boy next door, played by Keanu Reeves.
While we’re on the subject of identity’s inconstancy and unfair expectations, it’s useful to point out that Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis. This is not to suggest that the artist isn’t her own person, but rather to attempt some explanation for why her film has such an unnatural air of edgy intensity. It’s in the same way that Robin Wright Penn, having been married to and recently divorced from Sean Penn, makes a difference too. And even if it isn’t fair, it’s useful—for adding a little grit to what otherwise might register as just another Lifetime melodrama for complacent well-to-do white people.
Thankfully, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee does evolve—getting closer, eventually, to its better self.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Directed by Rebecca Miller
With Robin Wright Penn, Blake Lively, Alan Arkin, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Robin Weigert, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci and Winona Ryder