Stars for stars’ sake
REBECCA MILLER, director of the erratic Personal Velocity and the barmy The Ballad of Jack and Rose, hits something like her stride with this ambitious feminist melodrama. Based on her own popular novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee struggles to shake off serious problems in tone and casting, but, if a high-minded version of Peyton Place sounds like your thing, then you should definitely take a look.
Wearing the half-mast smile of the perpetually disappointed, Robin Wright Penn stars as a middle-aged woman who, following upbringing by a pharmacologically bewildered mother and dalliances with various schools of Bohemia, now lives in a posh estate for the elderly with her much older husband (Alan Arkin).
The film jags backwards and forwards between the present and Pippa Lee’s adventures in the velvety 1970s and the cocainebound 1980s. After running away from mom (Maria Bello, excellent), she settles in with a lesbian aunt (Robin Weigert) and her pretentious lover (Julianne Moore). In the present, a somnambulatory encounter with a friend’s son (the stars keep coming – it’s Keanu Reeves) leads her to contemplate a rash break from her crushing surroundings.
Miller does a good job of counterpointing Wright Penn’s current traumas with explanatory and formative crises from earlier years. The horror of postwar suburban conformity has been addressed in many media on many occasions, but Miller’s version of 1970s oblivion – yellow make-up sinking into open pores – is particularly stultifying and oppressive. The film’s jabs at the 1980s are a bit broader, but this remains a canny, witty study of contemporary discontents and their origins.
Unfortunately, the film’s casting is consistently awry. One can’t help but suspect that, thrilled at the willingness of so many stars to get on board, Miller has been tempted to hammer a few too many square pegs into a few too many round holes. Wright Penn is too young for her role and Moore too old for hers, but they seem ideally cast when considered alongside Keanu Reeves. (Either that or the dialogue is sending us in the wrong direction.)
Though he seems to be playing the lead’s toyboy, Reeves is, in fact, several months older than the youthful Robin. Golly, time goes by so fast.
Before she was Robin: Blake Lively as the young Pippa Lee