The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Filled with eccentric but intriguing characters and lots of jump cuts into the past, Pippa Lee wallows in unresolved quirkiness

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) 

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.