In Theaters: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Movieline Score:

As the adult Pippa Lee, the comely, gracious, unfailingly appropriate wife of a newly retired New York publisher, Robin Wright speaks in a small, high voice that suggests a kind of atrophy. It's the kind of voice that might result from years of unuse, of sealing even the most meager opinions behind the warm but empty smile of a literary consort, and Pippa is the kind of woman who has endured countless cocktail party conversations without once being spoken to herself. In the opening scene of Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, she disappears into that smile when one of the guests at the dinner party she is throwing to celebrate her husband Herb's (Alan Arkin) new home in a Connecticut retirement community pays her a tribute that doubles as a dismissal: "You are the very icon of an artist's wife." This now-common misuse of the term -- that is to suggest fame and/or the ultimate embodiment of a concept or state of being rather than a religious symbol or representative sign -- here seems pointed: Pippa has been frozen not into an idea but an ideal, a picture of herself.

A woman of an age growing more certain with every passing day, Pippa is more concerned with her fragile husband's mortality than her own -- a leaning, as it turns out, they share. A vague idea of rest and relaxation brought them to Connecticut, and it's a decision they both seem to regret immediately: Herb rents out an office for work and sexual extra-curriculars; Pippa begins binge eating (and driving to the store for smokes) in her sleep. When together, however, the two fuss sweetly at each other, nattering over a find at the farmer's market (a certain, lunch-enhancing cheese, Herb's approval of which seems to provide Pippa with the peak of personal fulfillment) and enacting a grouchy/cajoling song and dance around the regular taking of Herb's blood pressure. The couple's two children Ben (Ryan McDonald) and Grace (Zoe Kazan) suggest the not-unusual paradigm of a father-daughter/mother-son alliance, with Grace especially acting the pill. Home from an assignment shooting Baghdad war zones for a prominent magazine, Grace personifies the naive pomposity of a young person certain that no one has ever done anything as important as what she's doing right now. Her contempt for Pippa, expressed at a family dinner in which she barely acknowledges her mother's typically benign expressions of admiration are notable but not quite unusual; young and on fire with ambition and self-possession, Grace seems to want to defeat Pippa -- who belongs to others and always has -- with every anecdote of IED's and open fire.

With these, the film's early scenes of completely average domestic adjustment, marital imparity and child-inflicted assholery, Miller sets the stage for an exploration of the inner life of the women we've all overlooked at some point over the course of the big, boring cocktail party of life. Guided by some narration by Wright, we return to Pippa's childhood, and ostensibly the origins of her people-pleasing ways; they are rooted, unsurprisingly, in the pill-popping basket case that was her mother. "Her moods ruled my life," Wright says, and, watching just a few of them pass through the body of Maria Bello with gale force, you believe her. As a small child Pippa is groomed and trussed like a prized spaniel by her mother, praised for her obedience and composure; by the time she makes it to adolescence (and is transformed into Blake Lively), the jig is up, and Pippa runs away after voicing the ultimate betrayal: the vow to be nothing like her.

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