From all outward appearances, Pippa Lee leads a charmed existence. She is the devoted wife of an accomplished publisher 30 years her senior, the proud mother of two grown children, and a trusted friend and confidant to all who cross her path. But as Pippa dutifully follows her husband to a new life in a staid Connecticut retirement community, her idyllic world and the persona she has built over the course of her marriage will be put to the ultimate test. In truth, looks are deceiving, and this picture-perfect woman has seen more than her fair share of turmoil in her youth. Embarking on a bittersweet journey of self-discovery, accompanied by a new, strange and soulful acquaintance, Pippa must now confront both her volatile past and the hidden resentment of her seemingly perfect life in order to find her true sense of self. By turns wry, humorous, and moving, "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" presents the complex portrait of the many lives behind a single name.
Imagine a contemporary surgeon whose parents were both prominent and gifted physicians. This son of theirs has inherited some of their talent. But it turns out that while he's very good at slicing into his patients, he's not nearly as good at stitching them up again.
Rebecca Miller – the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath – has made her fourth feature film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. As was the case with her previous efforts (The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Personal Velocity, Angela) this outing is peppered with moments of creative spark only to be weighed down by irritatingly random elements that don't quite work.
It wouldn't be all that relevant to emphasize Miller's parentage except that this story is packed to bursting with the sorts of art and liiterature professionals that the young Miller was surrounded with in real life, much the same way Rob Reiner grew up thinking everybody's dad was friends with Groucho Marx and Mel Brooks because, well, people like that were always over at his house, since his father is multi-talented comedian Carl Reiner. Miller seems to think that if you toss whimsey, betrayal, guilt and "audacious" behavior into a blender, hit "mid-life crisis" and get a lot of really good actors to drink the concoction, the end product will be tasty.
Miller adapted her own novel, providing a wonderful showcase for the radiant Robin Wright Penn. Wright Penn's Pippa is married to publishing legend Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), a man at least two decades her senior. In the wake of his three heart attacks, they've recently moved from New York to a sylvan retirement community in Connecticut. They have two grown children. She graciously hosts dinner parties for witty, accomplished friends. By rights, nobody in her position should feel trapped by the trappings of material comfort.
But Pippa has taken to sleep walking and then raiding the refrigerator, something she probably wouldn't be doing if she were at peace with herself and her past. Could it be that this classy woman is hiding the hairline cracks in her seemingly placid personality? Not liking to call attention to herself, she's having "a quiet nervous breakdown."
Pushing 50, Pippa is too young and too gorgeous to completely fit in where she's landed but, as flashbacks show, fitting in has never been her strong suit. We learn that Pippa's mom (Maria Bello) possessed the kind of volatile energy rarely seen outside of particle accelerators; that the teenaged Pippa (Blake Lively) ran away from home to stay with her bohemian aunt and her aunt's edgy lesbian lover Kat (Julianne Moore, chewing the scenery with wicked gusto); that Pippa ended up being a quintessential hippie chick, adrift until she met Herb, whose previous wife (Moncia Bellucci) has a theatrical streak wider than Broadway.
The much younger Pippa let herself be taken under Herb's wing. In the present day, Pippa makes a strange but heartfelt connection with a neighbor's thirtysomething son Chris, played by Keanu Reeves with a tattoo as big as the Ritz emblazoned across his muscular chest.
Winona Ryder is fun to watch as Pippa and Herb's friend, Sandra, a poet who could embody on her own a 21st century group of Seven Dwarves, starting with Weepy and Flakey.
What the film has going for it besides Wright Penn, is the economy with which the camera pans from one era to another, its blast from the past production design and a decent score. What it has going against it is a faintly sanctimonious tone that seems to say we should find these scattered characters interesting because they're all so flawed and damaged and, well, the stuff of art. Little about this saga truly convinces, but the cast features so many wonderful actors that one almost feels guilty for not buying the results.