x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Some brilliant performances are let down by self-indulgent padding.

Maria Bello, left, gives a strong performance as Suky in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, playing the amphetamine-addicted mother of Pippa Lee, played by Blake Lively, right, as a teenager and Robin Wright as an adult.
Maria Bello, left, gives a strong performance as Suky in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, playing the amphetamine-addicted mother of Pippa Lee, played by Blake Lively, right, as a teenager and Robin Wright as an adult.

Robin Wright Penn and Maria Bello are the two poles of brilliance as mother and daughter in this midlife melodrama written by Rebecca Miller and adapted from her own debut novel. The movie is a non-linear narrative whirl that leaps about from a single year in the life of its unhappy eponymous protagonist Lee (Penn) - a woman and dutiful wife who is essentially trapped in the sterile Connecticut "gated community" of her much older and now retired publisher husband Herb (Arkin) - to the slowly unfolding story of her own troubled and rebellious past life.

In these past sections in particular, the movie ignites and is both witty and quietly moving as it details the tensions between Lee and her amphetamine-addicted mother Suky, played by Bello. The latter actress, a familiar character worker for nearly two decades now (see The Cooler, A History of Violence), excels at swooping into minor roles, as she does here, and investing them with a pathos and emotional depth that they might not have had on paper. It's a testament to her layered turn, and to Blake Lively's performance as the young teenage Lee, that when Penn finally breaks down as Lee in later life and confesses: "If I could have anything, I would ask for one more afternoon with my mother," the moment bristles with genuine emotion.

Elsewhere, however, the movie is not without its problems. The modern-day section, in which Lee struggles with a sleep-walking-cum-eating affliction (she sneaks into her kitchen and eats entire chocolate cakes in the middle of the night), often feels like padding for her own more interesting back story. And here, especially, a half-cocked romance with a young, troubled, local stud Chris, played by Keanu Reeves, seems particularly unconvincing. Reeves is an actor of, well, unique abilities, and is suited to a very specific spectrum of movie archetypes (the soft-spoken icon hero, the alien emissary etc). Casting him here as a troubled brooder with a penchant for whispering in the ears of dying dogs, and someone who is nonetheless irresistible to Lee, was a significant error. When he stares into Lee's eyes and mangles lines as simple as: "There, is, something, I, need, to, do!" it practically kills any promise of romantic chemistry dead right there on the spot.

Ultimately, the surprise with Pippa Lee is that, even though it's adapted directly from her own novel, it is the least successful of Miller's three movies so far. It has none of the dark entropic passion of her previous Ballad of Jack and Rose, or the observational elan of Personal Velocity. Instead it's a quirky 90-minute distraction, chock-full of hit-or-miss cameos (see Winona Ryder's mewling temptress, or Monica Bellucci's terrifying suicide), but saved ultimately by the star turns of two heavyweight screen performers.