Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee shines well above most films of its kind thanks to first-rate acting and a very light touch with heavy subject matter. Robin Wright Penn stars as the titular Pippa Lee, a woman who lives a quiet life as the wife of an ailing book publisher, despite her colorful past and wildly active imagination. It’s mildly quirky and rather cute at times, but don’t let the whimsical trappings fool you — this is a drama with more substance and weight than it first appears to be.
We begin with close-ups of Pippa, a very pretty 40-something woman, applying makeup in a mirror, preparing for a dinner party. At the party, she beams a practiced smile at her surrounding friends and family — her elder husband, Herb (Alan Arkin), her son Ben (Ryan McDonald) and friends from the writing world, including the exuberant novelist Sam (Mike Binder) and his neurotic wife Sandra (Winona Ryder).
Sam toasts the founder of the feast, calling her a mystery — the “perfect artist’s wife.” In a voiceover she says, “To be perfectly honest, I’ve had enough of being an enigma, I want to be known,” as she fires up a round of perfectly crisped crème brulee desserts.
Soon, we get a real taste of the woman behind the blithe mask, as the film takes us through a narrated tour of her childhood and adolescence. Pippa’s eccentric mother (Maria Bello) alternatively worshipped her daughter, dancing with her and photographing her dressed as a movie star, to checking out completely, crying in another room and ignoring the family. The candy-colored ’60s interiors and cheerful music belie the sadness and hysteria hiding just beneath the surface of the TV commercial “perfection.”
It’s Blake Lively as the younger Pippa and Bello as her deeply unhappy mother that steal the show. Lively perfectly captures every ounce of innocence lost in the character’s youthful rebellion and her dangerous days as an art groupie, right along with her sweet, free spirit. Bello, alternatively, gives a stellar turn as a housewife in an unfeeling, plastic world and as a completely unhinged addict who cannot understand why things keep falling apart. The early scenes between mother and daughter are particularly powerful. This is the stuff that domestic nightmares are made of.
We move back and forth between her past “lives” and her current tedious existence, living in a retirement community since Herb suffered three heart attacks. She’s bored and beginning to crack a little. She finds out that she has a rich secret life sleepwalking, taking bizarre trips to the kitchen and driving out to the gas station for smokes.
Chris (Keanu Reeves), the 30-something son of another retirement community couple, makes a big impression on her. He’s an under-achiever, but a complete sweetheart, evidenced by his compassion and thoughtfulness. He talks to Pippa more honestly than anyone else in her life does and they form an odd friendship after she accidentally sleepwalks into his store late one night.
Reeves puts in one of the best performances in his career. Gone is the “whoa” persona from his action hero days, as he imbues Chris with a tiredness and a genuine sense of thoughtfulness. Exactly the opposite is Alan Arkin as Herb, who is essentially a man who cannot come to terms with his own aging and death. He’s wonderful in the complex role. Herb isn’t exactly a stand-up fellow, nor is he quite a villain.
Back in the past, we find that Pippa’s crazy home life has proven too much for her. She runs away to live with her aunt Trish (Robin Weigert), who is a lesbian with a very sexy partner, Kat (Julianne Moore). Our heroine’s only response to seeing her aunt kiss Kat is “Wow, Aunt Trish” and an accepting smile. Trish smiles back, with a glib “We’re a couple of black sheep, you and me!”
Her aunt provided a “haven” for the teenage Pippa, who seemed to have had something of a fascination — perhaps even a mild crush — on Kat. This leads to a charged relationship between the two, culminating in some rather risqué photo shoots.
Though she doesn’t get much screen time, Julianne Moore is a treat as Kat, the rather naughty queer photographer. She first appears casual and sexy in her updo and jean cutoff’s, all puzzling smiles and devious winks. Her role in bringing the impressionable Pippa into her wild photo shoots is questionable from a moral standpoint, but the scenes are actually very funny and playful. It’s played for laughs and camp much more than it is for kinks or shock value.
In those brief moments, Pippa plays the naughty schoolgirl and the devious dominatrix with equal relish, and it feels much like her early days, when her mother would truss her up like old movie stars and take her picture. She genuinely enjoys the attention — something that comes into play in much more dangerous ways later in her life.
Kat’s vices aside (and entirely unknown to her partner), Trish is the most responsible parent figure in the whole film. When she first takes her niece in, she assures her young charge that she can stay as long as she likes, so long as she leaves with a high school diploma, and she plays mediator when mom and dad try to collect their daughter. Refreshingly, Trish’s (and Kat’s) sexuality is never mentioned in a negative light, despite the time period (late ’70s/early ’80s) and otherwise “conservative” family dynamic.
After leaving her aunt, Pippa’s life takes a turn for the wild side, and the narrative begins to merge past and present lives. Her uninhibited 20s and first meetings with Herb begin to inform their current relationship, which has its rocky moments indeed. Those moments come to a head when we find out about one particularly shocking detail from the past — and a few unsavory goings-on in the present.
The tone of the film is darkly comic, often satisfyingly gleeful in even its most somber and disturbing moments. There is death, suicide, infidelity, addiction, and dysfunctional family trauma, truly the darkest and slimiest aspects of life — along with delicious dream sequences, romance and some exceptionally funny moments. Since we are essentially following a mildly unhinged protagonist, it all “fits” and the tone suits the character perfectly.
Wright Penn is stellar as the often-confused eye at the center of the storm, as adept at being sarcastic (she has some wonderful lines) as she is lost or confused in all the hysteria of her life. When the chips are down, she’s remarkably pragmatic and unemotional, but Wright Penn makes it clear that there’s always something simmering just beneath her placid exterior.
This is drama at its most entertaining — funny, sweet, and often brutally honest. It’s colorful and somewhat quirky in the polished “indie” sort of way, and compelling throughout.