The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Written and Directed by Rebecca Miller
Starring: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin, Maria Bello, Monica Belluci, Blake Lively, Keanu Reeves, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder
Run Time: 100 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Just as The Twilight Saga: New Moon taps into to the sexual yearnings and psychic disturbances of pubescent girls, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee explores similar terrain for the perimenopausal crowd. It’s too bad women over forty don’t go to movies in gaggles like their younger selves do these days. Pippa Lee could have been a hit.
As one of that woefully ignored and misunderstood demographic, I loved Pippa Lee, even as I saw through its witty and satirical veneer to the basic female fantasy film that it is, complete with Keanu Reeves and the proverbial second chance many of us reassessing mid-lifers wish were more common than the movies lead us to believe. That’s why this movie is fundamentally a “juicebomb,” an amusing term Slate movie critic Dana Stevens coined to describe New Moon. It goes straight to the libidinal core of women’s true selves-we may long for a new life and a chance to re-invent ourselves, but we want a cute guy to go with us.
Still, for a juicebomb, Pippa Lee is also an insightful and searing critique of a certain stratum of womanhood in contemporary society. It turns out that little has changed in the last half century, since Betty Friedan’s proclamation that underneath their dutiful selves, women are basically frustrated and unfulfilled. That’s Pippa all right. As a standard bearer for the feminine mystique, Pippa is pitch perfect.
When we are first introduced to Pippa, graciously played by a very subtle Robin Wright Penn, she is in her mid-forties and ensconced in a retirement community with her husband (Alan Arkin), a man thirty years her senior who has recently recovered from his third heart attack. The move from a vibrant Manhattan to a bland Wrinklehead is meant to keep the fiery old codger from having another, and Pippa dutifully takes his blood pressure as she reassures everyone that she’s quite content to be there.
Impeccably dressed, stunningly beautiful, and beatifically self-contained, Pippa may appear to be the perfect Stepford wife, but she is still an enigma, both to the audience and even, as it turns out, to herself. She may have willingly chosen marriage and children over fulfillment, but now that her children are grown and her husband has one foot in the grave, she finds herself feeling a little unhinged.
Very meticulously and with great comic precision, director Rebecca Miller, who adapted the screenplay from her own novel, peels back the layers of Pippa’s life, just as Pippa herself seems to be going through some psychic unraveling of her own. “I think I’m going insane,” she quietly admits to her husband when she finds out she has been sleepwalking, and that it is her own hands that have mauled the cake she finds on the floor in the morning. (This is the first of many funny scenes where the nocturnal Pippa reveals herself, like when she walks in her nightgown to the local gas station, manned by Keanu Reeves, to buy cigarettes. “The white ones,” she answers blankly when he asks her what brand.)
Between these sleepwalking episodes and adjusting to suburban life, Miss Miller interjects flashbacks of Pippa’s past lives, first as the smothered daughter of a 60s housewife (Maria Bello) whacked out on Dexedrine, and then as a lost young woman bouncing from one boyfriend to another in a drugged out haze of her own. In these flashbacks, Pippa is played by Blake Lively (TV’s Gossip Girl), whose coltish beauty is an appropriate youthful counterbalance to Robin Wright Penn’s self-contained midlife elegance.
The flashbacks make up the bulk of the film, and they give it a depth that staying in Wrinklehead wouldn’t have. They show us the “other” Pippa; the one who, at twenty, is so fucked-up that when she does meet her future husband (Arkin with a toupee), she clings to him like any self-preserving woman would to a buoy that fate has thrown her way to keep her from drowning.
All this sounds slightly clichéd, but in fact, the movie has as many lives as its heroine. It’s full of biting humor and brilliant comic performances. Maria Bello is hilarious as Pippa’s mother, energetically cleaning the house one minute and having a meltdown the next. “Who’s the president? Does anyone know who the president is?” she asks frantically at the dinner table one evening, her eyes bulging with an addict’s feverish intensity. Winona Ryder is also a hoot as the middle-aged Pippa’s histrionic friend Sandra, and Julianne Moore whoops it up as a butch lesbian who persuades a teenage Pippa to pose for some soft-porn photos that have a sadomasochistic flavor.
Miss Miller’s brand of psychological humor is so edgy that at times, I felt like I was watching a middle period Woody Allen movie. Caricatures and stereotypes abound, exaggerated situations pop up out of nowhere, and it is all laced with a layer of cynicism that is vintage Woody Allen. As a New York publisher, Pippa’s husband is just the upper class intellectual Woody Allen often wrote about, and the undercurrent of sexual appetites and Freudian notions of childhood trauma are right out of a Woody plot line. Still, Miller uses comedy in the service of another god, the god of sentimentality. It’s an interesting mix, and at times it makes us wonder just what this movie really is trying to tell us. Is Pippa just a complacent woman who lets fate drag her where it will, or is she really a woman on the verge of an emotional breakthrough?
Luckily, Robin Wright Penn is around to remind us. There’s a gravitas to her performance that makes us care about Pippa Lee. She’s not just a beautiful shiksa housewife who is having a midlife crisis; she’s a beautiful shiksa housewife who suddenly finds herself on a journey of self-discovery in spite of herself. Pippa has spent her whole adult life hiding out in a cocoon she has made for herself, and when she finally does break free, it is once again fate that leads the way. The movie’s final scenes, when she at last becomes a participant and starts tasting life again while wide awake, are invigorating, tender, and full of tremulous joy. It’s the payback we’ve been waiting for, and in true “juicebomb” form, it comes as pleasure, freedom and the open road. You go, Robin, I mean Pippa. Now that you’re rid of that husband of yours, and your children no longer need you, there’s a whole new life just waiting for you.
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