The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is one of those movies that treads a line between quirky comedy and tragic drama. And like a lot of those movies, it suffers from an identity crisis, never quite deciding which side of the fence it wants to fall on. It's sometimes possible to be both at the same time, but that's seldom the case, and unfortunately Pippa Lee isn't one of those rarities. However, a wonderfully diverse cast that really gel, along with some fantastic performances, ultimately saves Pippa Lee from whatever other failings it has.
Adapted from the director's (Rebecca Miller) own book, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (an awkward title if I ever heard one) follows the titled Pippa as she moves into an expensive retirement home with her much older husband. While slowly finding herself on the path to a "quiet nervous breakdown," Pippa reflects on her past which has lead her to where she is now.
Much of the quirkiness contained within Pippa Lee is in the first half of the movie, where it is reminiscent of Tim Burton's Big Fish – not least in the scene of Pippa's birth, which we uncomfortably witness from the baby's perspective — and Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. But just when you get settled into this quirky way of going about things, the movie makes a sudden jump to the land of the serious, tackling real-life issues and problems. And just when you get settled into that way of working, it jumps back to trying to be quirky again. It doesn't quite have what it takes to be both types of movie at once, and the attempts to be so, just don't work. The film sits far more comfortably in the serious side of things, with brilliant use of flashbacks (shown on screen in a fresh and unique way) when Pippa is reflecting on her past.
When Pippa Lee works, it's down to the performances by the diverse cast that's been brought together. Robin Wright Penn plays the titled character, an actress not praised as much as she should be, and who is sweet and quietly alluring as Pippa. Alan Arkin plays her much older husband, and he plays the role just right; as a tired old man who wants anything but to be a tired old man. Maria Bello is wonderful as Pippa's mother, going from cheerful mum to a drug addicted mess from one minute to the next within Pippa's flashbacks. Winona Ryder, putting in one of her best performances in ages, is almost always emotional throughout the movie, and it's a type of character she does well. Similar to Ryder, Keanu Reeves is the best he's been for a long time; although he's not a great actor to begin with, this is one of his most authentic performances that proves he's a bit more than what his one-note acting reputation suggests he is. The likes of Julianne Moore and Monica Belluci even make short appearances, simply rounding off an already brilliant cast.
There's something strange about the drama within Pippa Lee in that it doesn't really have the (presumed) intended affect. Maybe it's down to the quirky things thrown in that kills any of the drama, or the black humour that drains the seriousness out of any given situation, but something about it just doesn't work as it should. Attempted suicide, extreme ill health, mental breakdowns, mother-daughter emotional distance, all of this is dealt with at some point or another and yet it's never emotionally or dramatically engaging. The only reason I felt much at all for these characters was because of the actors and actresses playing them, not because of the things themselves that were happening to them.
In the end, did I like The Private Lives of Pippa Lee? Ultimately, yes, but there are many grievances to be had. A lack of knowing just what type of movie it was wants to be – a quirky comedy or a serious drama – results in an awkward feel of walking on a line between the two. However, fantastic performances all round and a stellar cast hold the film up, even when most other aspects weigh it down.