In one scene, someone calls Pippa Lee an enigma. She replies by saying, “To be perfectly honest, I've had enough of being an enigma. I want to be known." Well Pippa, don’t get ahead of yourself because it’s the enigmatic elements that make The Private Lives of Pippa Lee curiously ingenious. Based on the title and the film’s poster, you’ve likely already formulated a slew of preconceived notions. Good for you, because that’ll make the revelation of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee's richly layered plot far more effective.
Pippa Lee (Robin Wright) is a loving wife and mother, but beneath her charmed exterior is a past plagued with demons. As a young girl (Blake Lively), she's the apple of her mother’s (Maria Bello) eye. The problem is, her mother’s eyes are a bit - wild. Pippa’s mother suffers from a serious drug addiction making her attitude as erratic as a toddler’s. Pippa seeks refuge at her Aunt Trish’s (Robin Weigert) place in New York City, but there, she finds herself amidst even more unusual behavior when she’s introduced to Trish’s roommate’s (Julianne Moore) hobby of sadomasochistic photography.
Eventually Pippa falls into the arms of Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), a publisher 30 years older than she. Pippa becomes his loyal wife and goes with him when he decides it’s time to relocate to a retirement community. Once there, her seemingly idyllic life spirals out of control with Pippa developing a sleeping disorder, her sorrow over her daughter’s insolence towards her and finding an unlikely confidante in a strange new neighbor.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee gives you just about everything, minus action and adventure. It’s funny, dramatic and romantic and uses just the right degree of each to create an ideal emotional sensation. A number of the funnier instances are intertwined with serious issues, but neither sentiment ever outshines the other. Pippa has a hard time sleeping. She doesn’t lay awake, tossing and turning like most of us; she actually hops into her car and drives to the convenience store. Watching the event unfold is hilarious, but the disconcerting side of the situation is ever-present.
That mixture of genres is what makes the film so powerful. It goes straight from making you laugh to making you cringe. Most films that follow a similar format are diagnosed with an identity crisis, but writer-director Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, makes the constant flux of mood seamless and natural. Another potential snag concerning the film’s flow is the jumping back and forth between Pippa’s past and present, but with the help of cinematographer Declan Quinn, every leap is perfectly timed and visually transitioned making them easy on the mind and eyes.
Far too often we see a stellar ensemble cast wasted on shoddy material. It's incredibly invigorating to see such a talented group of actors cast so well and completely immersing themselves in the story. The best of the bunch is Wright and Lively. Wright breathes such genuine life into Pippa, it’s easy to forget that she’s just a character in the film and not someone you know personally. What makes Lively’s performance especially noteworthy is that I expected very little from her. Her role in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies is far from demanding and the same can be said for her part in Gossip Girl. Pippa Lee calls for much more heart and raw passion and, to my surprise, Lively delivers. There’s one scene, in particular, between Lively and Bello, that is guaranteed to break your heart.
Bello is at the top of the ladder in terms of the supporting cast. Her character is a complete wackjob forcing Bello to go all out for this one. While she does put all she has into the role, she doesn’t overdue it making her character Suky Sarkissian a travesty rather than a laughable lunatic. There’s not much to say about Arkin expect that he is Herb Lee. Yes he’s snarky, but Herb is a nice departure from Arkin’s roles in Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning. He’s simple and nonjudgmental on the outside, but bothered by Pippa’s demons as well as his own within.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’s sole fault, is that it’s not enough. We learn a great deal about Pippa’s life, past and present, but are consistently left yearning for more. This may be more of a testament to the film’s appeal rather than a criticism, but I would have loved to know more about the character, even if it meant an extra thirty minutes in the theater. Perhaps Miller’s novel, on which the film is based, allocates extra time to Pippa’s development. Regardless, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a feel-good film, both disconcerting and rewarding on all fronts.