One of contemporary cinema’s most graceful, taken-for-granted actors, Robin Wright, too long in the shadow of her ex-husband, would seemingly have finally found the perfect leading role in Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” in which she plays a graceful, taken-for-granted wife and mother. Onscreen, Wright imbues her roles with effortless compassion, which is always just barely peeking out from layers of weariness and insecurity. Her lack of actorly grandstanding has often relegated her to smaller roles, but rather than languish in supporting parts, she thrives, from her one-scene, one-shot wonder in Rodrigo Garcia’s “Nine Lives,” in which, pregnant and dissatisfied, she comes upon an old flame in a supermarket and runs through a lifetime emotions with the merest flickers in her eyes, to the seemingly thankless estranged-wife role in Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable,” which in a few scenes she turns into a symphony of regret and doubt. Unfortunately with “Pippa Lee” this most deserving of actresses has found a role in a film that doesn’t deserve her.
“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”‘s heart is in the right place, but it’s far too stuck in the conventions and cliches of suburban female liberation narratives to impress as anything other than dutiful and impersonal. Wright plays the titular character, the much younger wife of a successful publisher, Herb (Alan Arkin), who has passively been at her husband’s side for decades, even now as he moves to a Connecticut retirement community; her friends (including a weepy Winona Ryder) treat her with dull respect, her grown children (among them a nastily self-righteous Zoe Kazan) ignore her, Herb is grateful for her care but ignorant of her needs. Meanwhile, she remains haunted by the memory of her unbalanced, Dexedrine-addicted mother (Maria Bello, emoting to the rafters again). Naturally, the film charts Pippa’s awakening, her realization that she has devoted her life to someone else, and in the process has lost her identity (once troubled, spontaneous, and spunky, as we learn in flashbacks starring Blake Lively as Pippa), something she perhaps can still reclaim–maybe with the help of her neighbor’s drifter son, a studly savior played by Keanu Reeves sporting full-torso Jesus body art.
It’s that elaborate tattoo, incidentally, that’s indicative of a larger problem in the film. Adapted by Miller from her own novel, the film reeks of those eccentric novelistic flourishes that most filmmakers would wisely excise from book to screen, which in addition to Reeves’s illustrated chest, includes quirky anecdotes of Pippa being born with a coat of vestigial fur, flashbacks to her experiences as a naughty S&M teen model, and a gratuitous (and clearly truncated) segment with Monica Bellucci as a voluptuous suburban housewife (!) who blows her brains out during an outlandish dinner party. These occasional hiccups of self-conscious idiosyncrasy are matched by Miller’s overdetermined visual palette (sterile, white, full of ennui), by-the-book transitions (flashbacks to her childhood are cued by period doo-wop, wouldn’t you know?) and misguided stylistic choices, which range from clunky moving-backwards-in-time effects to poorly placed slow-motion, to, seriously, a brief animation fantasy.
Such decisions show not only a certain lack of aesthetic unity and sophistication but also severely detract from what should be the film’s unerring focus: Robin Wright. She’s perhaps not entirely convincing as a dowdy or dismissible housewife, but the actress brings so much charisma and inner spirit to Pippa that all the other characters orbiting around her just seem false contrivances in comparison, especially Reeves as the loner, the only one who really “gets” Pippa, and Ryder, with her distraught pixie routine. Also Wright’s talent and presence naturally makes dialogue like “She is a mystery, an enigma!” and Pippa’s own explanation that “Our marriage functions because we will it to” utterly redundant, yet novelist-filmmaker Miller feels the need to spell out every last inner thought and emotion. If only Miller had just trusted Wright’s subtly expressive face as her film’s only necessary effect.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and an editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]