Herb Lee (Alan Arkin) is a thrice-married book publisher who is pushing 80. On the surface, he appears pragmatic and unflappable, but he does possess one weakness, and that is for beautiful, damaged, and histrionic women. So too does Rebecca Miller, the writer and director of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Nearly all of the filmmaker’s female characters skate on the edge of oblivion, nudged there by men like Herb, who are either willfully ignorant, cruel or a mixture of the two. Just so, Herb’s impeccable, seemingly composed third wife Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, albeit a “very quiet one.”
Because Herb has had as many heart attacks as he’s had wives, the Lees relocate from their Manhattan home to a well-appointed condo in a Connecticut retirement community. As the film opens, the couple is hosting a dinner party for their cosmopolitan friends. In a toast to the hostess, writer Sam (Mike Binder) claims that Pippa, his friend of 25 years, remains forever mysterious. In voiceover, Pippa complains, “I’ve had enough of being an enigma. I want to be known.” From there, she begins narrating flashbacks of her turbulent childhood and young adulthood, ostensibly on the path to self-discovery and self-expression.
Pippa claims to have led many lives, three recounted here. One involves the destructive, symbiotic relationship she shared with her mother (Maria Bello), a suburban speed addict who lived her life as if it were a movie “and she were the star.” (Bello aptly chews the scenery with manic glee.) In another sequence, a teenage Pippa (Blake Lively) runs away from home to live with her saintly Aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) in New York; soon Trish’s lover, Kat (Julianne Moore), is tutoring Pippa about role-play and S&M. And in the third, a drifting and promiscuous Pippa meets Herb at a decadent ’80s beach party and is instantly smitten.
These episodes, while engaging, are not especially deep or revelatory. Essentially Miller seems to be asking two questions: “Why would a ‘good girl’ go bad?” and “Why would a ‘bad girl’ go good?” Her answer to both is the same: the girl’s mother was a nutcase. Mystery solved. That said, the film does finely illustrate the terror and resentment that spring from living with a narcissistic and unpredictable parent. It also details the budding courtship between Pippa and the much-older Herb. Beyond his experience, wealth, and influence, Herb offers her a chance at redemption. When he observes that she has “such a sweetness about her,” Pippa initially demurs. He presses, “You can be sweet and experienced at the same time,” letting her know he sees and accepts for her for who she is (or at least who she thinks she is). After her own mother tells her, “You were bad from the moment you were born,” it’s not a surprise that Pippa falls for the wholly supportive Herb, even though he’s 30 years her senior.
As Pippa delves into the past, her everyday life starts to unravel. She spies on her neighbors’ surly and down-on-his-luck son, Chris (Keanu Reeves); she is kicked out of a seniors’ pottery class for being insubordinate; and she begins to sleepwalk, sometimes as far as the local convenience store. Of course, Pippa is also sleepwalking through her life. It’s just one instance when Miller’s metaphors are a little too on-the-nose; another has Chris (yes, that’s one letter short of “Christ”) and Pippa becoming intimate, whereupon he reveals a tattoo of Jesus that covers the entire expanse of his chest, so Pippa ends up “seeing god” in more ways than one. Oy.
Clumsy moments like these are at least partially offset by some nuanced performances. Arkin is his usual stellar self, and Winona Ryder is poignant and hilarious as one of Miller’s weepy, disintegrating women. Wright Penn’s part is one of her juiciest in years, and she’s at her best when a distracted Pippa suddenly snaps to attention and delivers a wickedly funny observation of what’s unfolding around her.
Still, when Pippa finally does “wake up” to her own life, the development is almost comically abrupt and the image seems less hopeful than hesitant. In a car, with a long, open road before her, Pippa has obviously moved toward freedom, yet once again she’s positioned in the passenger’s seat. One can’t help wishing Miller would allow her beloved character to be, at long last, the driver.