Director Rebecca Miller was already scripting The Private Lives of Pippa Lee while still polishing up that 2008 novel, itself inspired by meeting a bohemian friend after twenty years to find her a respectable housewife and mother. A self-styled “reinvention” from one medium to another rather than pure adaptation, the group film is bolstered by a strong Alan Arkin as ageing Herb Lee, unwillingly put out to pasture by three heart attacks, and by Robin Wright Penn in the mature performance of her career as the domestic wife title character.
Behind a whiff of unease lurking in the couple's recent relocation from New York to the serenity of an upscale Connecticut retirement village, is Pippa’s past, as the film blends the fiftyish-year-old’s cosseted childhood with the discoveries and hippie turmoil of her late teens, with the dissolving of her apparently stable present. A future is here, too, briefly, unfixed but faced with new freedom and confidence.
This is an improvement over the writer-director’s last, 2005’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose, as for example in the many Proustian time-shifts, not heralded by technical devices aside from occasional blank whitish-grey frames, so as to leave the viewer momentarily at sea about when and where. Music writer Fred Plotkin asserts that Haydn’s gentle humor has dimmed the composer’s standing, and this film’s broad plays for laughs are equally diminishing; but unlike The Three Faces of Eve, its purpose is a rounder if less probing portrayal of the unraveling of a woman who fears a breakdown, and the subsequent knitting together.
As surrounding suburban (and Western) marriages hit rocks or become the bored habits of old age until release through death, Herb and Pippa’s appears a pillar of stability. Thirty years her senior, calm Herb waxes ironic about life and the youngsters who run his publishing business, chafes against his health and its restrictions, and, beneath outward pleasure at his wife’s coddling, feels laughter and joy slip away from them. Model wife, hostess, cook and organizer, she begins to smoke again, sleepwalks, binge eats, and is attracted by neighbor Dot Nadeau’s (Shirley Knight) “half-baked” son Chris (Keanu Reeves), back home after his wife’s infidelity with a best friend; and mentally returns to her formative years that are hard to identify with the adult suburban housewife.
First Pippa is the fussed-over, dressed-up darling (Madeline McNulty) of her manipulative, pill-dependent mother Suky (Maria Bello). Then comes the teen (Blake Lively) who rebels against parental self-indulgence and heads for the Greenwich Village pad of Aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) and lesbian lover Kat (Julianne Moore). From there, a succession of boyfriends, a pre-Goth girl pose, and a chance encounter with Herb, successful but kept by his self-dramatizing heiress wife Gigi (Monica Bellucci).
Pippa falls for the older man’s voice, and, at first no more than avuncular, he for the sweetness in her. Pippa Sarkissian metamorphoses into Pippa Lee, above all dutiful and, the inescapable narrative voice informs us, set into the current incarnation by motherhood, son Ben (Ryan McDonald) now nearly a lawyer and Grace (Zoe Kazan) a combat photojournalist. But surfaces are deceptive, and even love can be rationally programmed, as Pippa instructs overwrought best friend Sandra Dulles (Winona Ryder, as usual playing herself). Marriages crumble left and right, or can be made to seem that way to rekindle passion, and surprising -- or not surprising -- couplings emerge.
If we are the sum total of our pasts, what one is today is simply an addend among others that will in the future result in the personality of that time. Further, this anti-Romantic amorphous self will exist only for a moment before becoming yet another. “She gave us half her life,” understands Grace, and now deserves to live her own.
To Miller’s credit, success or failure is not posited -- just the lottery of ever-changing life itself, while one is alive.
(Released by Screen Media Films and rated "R" for sexual content, brief nudity, some drug material and language.)