Just the title alone, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, hints at a deep, dark interior world of fantasy and secrets. Oh, well. So much for truth in advertising. Writer-director Rebecca Miller, in adapting her novel of the same name, burrows into the psyche of a dutiful wife and mother, but the results are not terribly interesting.
The kicker of Pippa Lee, however, is that the blandness at its core is almost -- almost -- masked by such handsome presentation. Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, keeps the pacing fluid and sprightly. She has assembled a superb cast and talented production team. The movie looks and feels as if it has something smart and provocative to convey. "Like many people," Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) tells us early on, "I have lived more than one life." Unfortunately, that pronouncement is about as incisive as things get.
You can't fault Wright, who gives it her all in the title role. An acutely intelligent actor, she shades Pippa Lee with a quiet, somewhat elegant melancholy. Her performance lends the character an emotional heft that proves elusive elsewhere in the picture.
Forty-something Pippa and her significantly older husband, feisty publishing mogul Herb Lee (Alan Arkin), have just moved from New York City to a quiet retirement community in Connecticut. Despite an upper-class lifestyle distinguished by a nice house and fabulous dinner parties, Pippa senses that something is missing. Someone is trashing her kitchen at night and raiding the refrigerator. The Lees' closest friends, the obnoxious Sam and weepy Sandra (Mike Binder and Winona Ryder), are in relationship freefall. And cracks are showing in Pippa's own marriage. "I adore Herb," she confides to Sandra, "but our marriage functions because we will it to." Pippa wonders to herself, in largely superfluous voiceover, if she is quietly having a nervous breakdown.
Then she meets Chris Nadeau (Keanu Reeves), a seemingly irascible guy who has moved in with his folks after a brutal divorce. From the moment Chris first appears, shirtless and boasting a huge tattoo of Jesus on his chest, you know it's just a matter of time before his love and understanding proves to be Pippa's salvation.
The film weaves flashbacks through Pippa's present-day predicament. We learn that Pippa's mother, Suky (Maria Bello), was a pill-popping perfectionist whose obsession with her daughter's appearance bordered in fetishism. Small wonder, then, that teenaged Pippa (a captivating Blake Lively, of TV's "Gossip Girl") leaves home and thrashes around in a sex-and-drugs crowd before she eventually meets, and is rescued by, Herb.
Or is it rescue? The Private Lives of Pippa Lee observes that Pippa -- ensconced in a comfortable, if passionless, existence -- is slowly unraveling. But the film, like the woman at its center, is missing something.
Wright is gifted with subtle expression, but she cannot make up for an underwritten role, a character who feels more like an authorial conceit than flesh-and-blood person. There are intriguing bits scattered about, some of them featuring cameos by the likes of Julianne Moore and Monica Bellucci, but the pieces ultimately fall short of a cohesive whole.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the picture boasts strong details and vivid colors. Nevertheless, the review disc provided does not represent final product (even though the DVD was released in early March), so this reviewer cannot adequately assess video quality.
Viewers can select 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or 2.0 Dolby Digital, both of which receive perfunctory, if unremarkable, treatment here. But since the screener disc does not reflect final product, the review cannot fairly critique sound quality.
The DVD supplied for review promises that subtitles will be available for final product.
Well, the screener DVD promises a commentary with Wright and Miller, cast and director interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Alas, nothing is on the screener disc.
A perplexing film almost as enigmatic as its protagonist, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has the right actress in Robin Wright and the right supporting cast -- especially Lively -- but its tone and focus seem disjointed and fuzzy.