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‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’

Same old desperate housewives

by Kaori Shoji

What exactly does a woman want? Even a genius like Freud couldn’t answer that one, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from gleefully pitching their own answers, time and time again. Sadly, they’re almost always something routine and familiar, dribbling with prosaic food-court banality: a man, a family, a wedding, a divorce, a relationship . . . yawn.

More of the same happens in “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.” The Japanese-release title can be translated as: “The Love Diary of a Fifty Year Old” (“50 Sai no Renaihakusho”), which strikes me as one helluva depressing way to put it. On the other hand, it’s truer to the movie’s actual content than the original English title, which slyly suggests Pippa has a lot more to her than just the same old, same old.

The story opens with a dinner party where the titular Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) — approaching 50 and the epitome of tranquil beauty — is serving lamb followed by creme brulee, to an adoring array of guests. One of them is Sam (Mike Binder), who lovingly calls Pippa “an enigma, a mystery.” In a voiceover narrative, Pippa quips back: “I’m tired of being an engima. I wanna be known.” This sounds promising: Perhaps Pippa has multiple identities and she’s simultaneously deploying and hiding behind them all.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rating
Director Rebecca Miller
Run Time 98 minutes
Language English

No such luck, because the unfurling of this story exposes its “Desperate Housewives” core — albeit with better clothes and streamlined home decor. Pippa is gorgeous, thin and has impeccable taste, tempered by an artistic streak carefully fostered by publisher husband Herb (Alan Arkin), 30 years her senior. At 80, Herb has decided to combat old age by moving out of New York to an upscale retirees’ community in Connecticut — a move that Pippa approved, and is now cheerfully supporting. Inwardly, she’s “quietly having a nervous breakdown” as her sheltered, comfortable life she’s basked in all these years, crumbles without warning. Eager to prove himself and launch “pre-emptive strikes against senility,” Herb has an affair with Pippa’s best (and much younger) friend, Sandra (Winona Ryder), while at home their photojournalist daughter (Zoe Kazan) is rude and critical of her well-groomed mom.

Their other child — a son in law school — doesn’t even bother to put in an appearance. It doesn’t take long before Pippa shifts gears from Perfect Spouse to Somewhat Bonkers: raiding the fridge in her sleep or showing up at the neighborhood convenience store in her nightie at 2 a.m. There, at least, is someone who genuinely likes her: the sweet Chris (Keanu Reeves) who works the cash register, and, as Pippa discovers later, has “Son of God” tattooed on his chest.

Pippa is the creation of writer/director Rebecca Miller, whose last feature, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” was an insightful, powerfully haunting tale that also paired a much older man with a younger woman (in that case it was father and daughter) while recounting her struggle for independence and self-assertion. Miller herself knows something of being influenced by a father figure (as the daughter of Arthur, this is an issue often explored in her films and writing), but Pippa is far less compelling or inspirational compared to her other heroines. The point seems to be that Pippa has a bad-girl past (played by Blake Lively) — punctuated by scream fests with her drug-and-cocktail-infused mom (Maria Bello), an incident with a sexually harassing lesbian photographer (Julianne Moore), dabbling in substance abuse, clubbing and smoking and chilling. Distressed jeans here, black eyeliner there, blasts of late ’70s rock in the background. And then Pippa met Herb, who took her under his protective wing for the next quarter century or so, and she apparently became lulled into a kind of beatific somnambulism. Or maybe comatose is a better term.

At the end of an hour, you cease to be interested in what Pippa wants: It’s hard to sympathize when someone has such ample time and means for soul-searching. OK, she just wanted to be known; problem is, she was at her most interesting when blow-torching the tops of the creme brulee with a satisfied but unreadable expression. Why couldn’t she let herself be and keep her private self a lovely, impenetrable secret? Which at this point feels like the more viable question.