x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A quiet nervous breakdown

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has a strong cast that helps create a perfect blend of comedy and seriousness in Rebecca Miller's film

Robin Wright and Keanu Reeves star in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, about a middle-aged woman going through a quiet nervous breakdown.
Robin Wright and Keanu Reeves star in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, about a middle-aged woman going through a quiet nervous breakdown.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee 

Director: Rebecca Miller 

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robin Wright, Alan Arkin


There is a moment in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee when Pippa herself (Robin Wright) mildly wonders if she's having a "very quiet nervous breakdown". And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the matter here.

Pippa Lee is a 50-something, immaculate housewife who has recently moved to a retirement community with her much-older husband in Connecticut. He is Herb (Alan Arkin), a publishing mogul who's just had his third heart attack and so has been forced to give up Manhattan city life for a more sedate pace. We meet them hosting a welcome dinner in their new home, where the only outlet for Pippa's frustration appears to be the use of a blow-torch on her miniature crèmes brûlées.

So here's Pippa, hosting civilised dinner parties, wearing silk pyjamas and taking her husband's blood pressure daily, all the while on a depressing, steady march towards the graveyard. "He had to go," sighs an elderly neighbour, as another member of the community is wheeled out from his house in a body bag. "You know, there are other young wives here," she tells Pippa seconds later, as she peeps out of the window in alarm.

Interspersed with the mundanity of this life are amusing flashbacks to Pippa's early, entirely different existence. She was born hairy, quite literally, as a baby with vestigial traces of blonde fluff all over her body. "From when we were monkeys," says a doctor, unhelpfully, as Pippa's mad mother, Suky (Maria Bello), runs down the hospital corridor in a blue birthing gown, shrieking in horror.

From the very moment that she appeared in this world, then, Pippa's life has been dramatic. Further childhood flashbacks show her bipolar mother dressing her up like glamorous movie stars of the age, and Suky's mood swings increasingly dominating their relationship.

Finally, teenage Pippa (Blake Lively) bolts to her aunt's beatnik-style apartment in New York and the seeds are sown for Pippa to embark on a wild few years as a late-1970s hippie. Until she's rescued by Herb, anyway. At which point she decides to devote her life to him in an attempt to erase her past, mimicking the actions of the perfect wife until she becomes one.

Well, almost. This film documents the unravelling of her efforts, as she starts sleep-walking and eating chocolate cake in the night, puts socks in the fridge, takes up smoking again and makes an unlikely friend in the form of Chris (Keanu Reeves), the 35-year old divorced son of another neighbour.

The story is all Rebecca Miller's (the daughter of Arthur and the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis). She wrote the original bestselling book, adapted it for the screen and then directed it, too. And, despite the final, "Hallmark" line about life and where it takes us, Miller has created an eminently watchable film; deadly serious in parts, wryly comic in others, but a perfectly blended mix of the two.

This alchemy is helped by a cracking cast. Wright (formerly Wright Penn) is pitch-perfect as Pippa, battling between losing it while wistfully reflecting on the past and trying to maintain life as normal.

When she failed even to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar this year, there was some harrumphing from critics who had pegged her as a dead-cert for at least a nod. Exciting, too, was the performance put in from Gossip Girl's Lively, who needs to tread carefully lest she end up tossing out woeful horror flicks just like the former teenage-drama queen, Mischa Barton. She appears to be doing just that. Then there are brief but luminous appearances from Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci and Winona Ryder.

Altogether, the end-product has something of a quirky, Woody Allen feel to it. Things are perhaps wrapped up a trifle too neatly, but Pippa has earned just enough of our sympathy to warrant it.