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 is showing us how settling down and settling in are just more ways of becoming unsettled.
Robin Wright Penn plays the dutiful, desperate housewife of a successful Manhattan book publisher (Alan Arkin) who’s older than her by so many years that it matters a lot when he’s due for the retirement home. For her, it’s the midlife-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, while after years of smiling service as his consort, she looks like she could use some saving again.
Cue the formative-experience flashback scenes, by which we meet Blake Lively as the teenaged 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, and found her worth ditching his marriage to a live-wire wife (Monica Bellucci) who certainly wasn’t about to go away 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 making her way over to the all-night convenience-store checkout counter that’s so receptively manned by a no-nonsense boy next door in the form of Keanu Reeves.
While we’re on the subject of identity’s inconstancy and unfair expectations, it’s useful to point out not only that Robin Wright Penn was married to and recently divorced from Sean Penn but also that Miller is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis. This is not to suggest that either artist isn’t her own person, but rather to attempt some explanation for why their film has such an unnatural air of edgy intensity. And even if it isn’t fair, it helps — by adding a little grit to what otherwise might register as just another Lifetime melodrama for complacent well-to-do white women.
But Miller and her cast won’t surrender to such enclosures, and thankfully, “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” does evolve — getting closer, eventually, to its better self.