The Private Lives of Pippa Lee should be counted as a failed experiment. Director Rebecca Miller — daughter of playwright Arthur — coaxes remarkable acting from her ensemble, attempting an associative structure with plenty of flashbacks and significant parallels, but the plot (scripted by Miller from her own novel) is too loose-jointed. The Lives don’t cohere into a life, and we never learn much that’s clear about Pippa.
“I have been reckless with my life,” she confesses to a boyfriend. Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) has been searching for love, doing drugs, seeking independence, luxuriating in guilt, fearing death, hoping to understand her relationship with her pill-popping mother (Maria Bello).
But as with her film’s metaphorical leaps — a restaurant dessert becomes a pink birthday cake from Pippa’s childhood; pouring cornflakes become cascading pills — Miller mashes up episodes from Pippa’s life, and several of the jigsaw puzzle pieces remain missing.
The acting, though, is admirable. As Pippa’s much-older husband, Alan Arkin conveys the irritation of the already half-dead man who lashes out at anyone who’s already grieving him. Bello’s bi-polar character veers from possessive mania to irate despondency — and reviewers who have criticized her performance must have a problem with women expressing strong emotions, because Bello, avoiding Dunaway-as-Crawford excesses, creates a pitiable portrait.
Blake Lively (as the young Pippa, insecure under dark makeup and yearning for her mom) and Wright Penn (masking extreme anxiety under a Connecticut housewife exterior) scatter around vignettes from Pippa’s life.
There’s a scene late in the movie, for example, set in the back of a truck, that involves abortive attempts at both prayer and sex. Central to all this is the large tattooed image of Jesus on Keanu Reeves’ chest. (At this point, Pippa’s grieving a loved one.) Yeah, excellent and adventuresome sex with Ted — that’ll help the grieving process.
The DVD’s extras include some unwatchable puff-piece interviews and explanations of how sets were constructed to facilitate the quick cuts from Pippa’s childhood to adult years and back again.
Those time-shifts create some interesting links, but only add up to a fragmented view of Pippa’s many discombobulated lives. (Rated R)