When, at this year’s Oscars, Sean Penn mumbled nonsensically about not seeing “eye to eye” with the Academy, and about how he had neglected to acknowledge someone last year, and about how the Academy had failed to acknowledge that same person this year, he was referring to his ex-wife Robin Wright. At least, this is what I have to assume, since even if you slow down the tape of what he said, you’ll be hard-pressed to follow his train of thought.
Since he famously forgot to thank her in his own acceptance speech last year (they subsequently, if only coincidentally, broke up), and since the producers of this year’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee had been lobbying hard for a nomination for Wright’s performance in the lead role, it adds up. So, I mention all this just to clear things up. (The fact that The Private Lives of Pippa Lee was, apart from her typically excellent work, kind of crappy, notwithstanding.)
Rebecca Miller (who wrote and directed this adaptation of her own novel) offers a biography of Pippa Lee, a weird and gorgeous suburban girl whose obsession with her amphetamine-addicted mother (an appropriately manic Maria Bello) is matched only by her utter indifference to her father (which may explain why she marries an older man later on, but also might not). When Pippa’s relationship with her messy Mum leads to an inevitable confrontation in her teens (by which time she is played by a luminous Blake Lively), she runs away to her gay aunt’s bohemian apartment.
Once there, her aunt’s girlfriend (Julianne Moore) convinces her to model for semi-pornographic photographs, which she clearly enjoys. Innocence lost. Eventually, she finds herself adrift amid a drug-fueled boho art scene, at which point she becomes the mistress to a much older writer (Alan Arkin playing Alan Arkin again). They eventually marry, she cleans up, and the rest of the movie takes place 30 years later, after Arkin has been forced to move to a retirement community and Pippa has, at the age of 50, been compelled to come along.
This existential crisis – old before her time, trapped in a land of the dying – is underlined by her uncomfortable relationship with her children (her daughter seems to hate her, and her son talks to her like she’s a moron) and her unhappy role as the “perfect artist’s wife” (in the condescending words of one of Arkin’s colleagues). Sleepwalking through life (quite literally, we discover), Pippa Lee re-evaluates her priorities, her relationships, her history, her being.
This kind of feminist character study – in which we peel back the accumulated layers of silencing male coercive authority that have gathered like a veil around the “secret” life, or lives, within – can be thrilling. When we get underneath, however, the person revealed has to be, finally, interesting. In Pippa Lee, we are left with an impulse-driven, intellectually rambling woman who, were it not for the alchemy of Wright’s performance, would appear utterly tedious. Ultimately, no matter how extraordinary Robin Wright’s work – and it is classic, sophisticated, refined, splendid – there is no getting past the discovery that she isn’t actually all that worth getting to know, after all.
Anyway, for a film that really wants us to take it seriously, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee makes two catastrophic mistakes from which it can never recover. First, it relies on voice-over from Wright that is so cliché-driven – “I feel like my life is just beginning” she actually says as the film ends! – that we are basically unable to look up to her. Wecond, though the rest of the cast is impressive, it makes wide use of Keanu Reeves in a non-ironic role. Please.