The old maxim, “never judge a book by its cover” could have been coined to describe Pippa Lee. When we first meet her at age fifty she’s the very picture of composure, a well put together spouse to her much older husband. Of course, the journey to becoming Pippa Lee, trophy wife, is far more interesting than the well manicured facade she presents to friends, family, and even, most of the time, to herself. “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” the new film starring Robin Wright Penn in the title role, takes the viewer on the wild ride that is (and was) Pippa’s life.
We first get to know the middle aged Pippa, devoted wife of Herb Lee (Alan Arkin). He’s thirty years her senior and in a move to make a “pre-emptive strike against decrepitude,” he and Pippa leave New York for a retirement home. There her life begins to fall apart, and in a series of flashbacks we learn about her mother—a hopped up Maria Bello—her drug tinged wild young life—as portrayed by Blake Lively—and even a kinky photo session with her aunt’s lover. As her life unwinds, she finds security in the most unlikely of places—with the troubled son of a neighbor (Keanu Reeves).
Based on a novel written by director Rebecca Miller, “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is a rambling look at a woman in the midst of “a very quiet nervous breakdown.” The quirky flashback structure shouldn’t work, but Miller teases us, keeping the story fresh by bit by bit doling out tantalizing moments from Pippa’s life. There are ups and downs, and the reckless Pippa often seems to zig when she should zag, but in the end the story is life affirming, but in a grown up way.
Despite the presence of teen dream queen Blake Lively, this isn’t a drama for kids. It’s a study of living life north of forty populated with believable, interesting characters.
Front and center is Robin Wright Penn in the lead role. She’s never made much of an impression on me, despite her great beauty, but here she glows, as if this is the role she has waited all these years to do. As the elder Pippa (Lively plays her as a young woman) Penn hits all the right notes, creating a fully formed person out of a collection of flashbacks and biographical notes.
She is supported by an engaging and able cast including Alan Arkin as her wrinkled husband, Winona Ryder as her teary-eyed friend and (ultimately) betrayer Sandra, Maria Bello as her pill popping Stepford Mom and Keanu Reeves as a love interest with a twist.
“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” mixes and matches mid-life drama and humor, delivering some surprises and real emotional moments to create an interesting portrait of an interesting person.