Rebecca Miller’s fourth feature may be the only film you’ll ever see with both Cornel West and Monica Bellucci in minor roles. But it is also immediately recognizable as the millionth iteration of a sheltered, middle-aged suburban housewife who has a slight crack-up and decides she better get her ya-yas out.
A film about private lives may be impossible for a writer-director whose own life is part of the public record—the traces of which show up frequently in her movies. The daughter of Arthur, Miller’s work often includes domineering dads: The “Greta” segment from 2002’s Personal Velocity (based on Miller’s short-story collection of the same name) finds Parker Posey’s Harvard Law burnout desperate to impress her prominent defense-lawyer father; the teenage daughter in 2005’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose is completely besotted with her eco-warrior pop, played by Miller’s husband, Daniel Day Lewis—the two live essentially as husband and wife. The central relationship of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is the inverse of Jack & Rose‘s quasi-incestuous bond: Devoted homemaker Pippa (Robin Wright Penn), approaching 50, is married to publishing powerhouse Herb (Alan Arkin), a man 30 years her senior who becomes a surrogate daddy.
But before finding papa, Pippa must escape the soul-sucking vortex of banshee mommy. Opening with a dinner party at Pippa and Herb’s new home in Connecticut (Miller was reared in Roxbury), where the couple moved after Herb’s third heart attack, Pippa, serving butterflied lamb, is hailed as “the very icon of an artist’s wife.” The patronizing praise prompts Wright Penn’s voiceover—”I’ve had enough of being an enigma. I want to be known”—and flashbacks to a 1960s childhood, the first of several that interrupt the main narrative of adult Pippa’s slow unraveling. Mother Suky (Maria Bello) is hopped up on black beauties, her raging mood swings pushing teenage Pippa (Blake Lively) out of the Constitution State suburbs and into the Manhattan lesbian lair of an aunt (Robin Weigert) and her girlfriend (Julianne Moore), who demands Pippa pose for her B&D tableaux. Pippa ditches those deranged dykes, soon finding safety on a Long Island beach, where she meets Herb (Arkin in ridiculous hair plugs), breaks up his marriage (to Bellucci), weds (“I gave myself over to him like a penitent”), gives birth, and waits on everyone hand and foot.
So far, so Feminine Mystique. Middle-aged Pippa—in between pottery class, taking her husband’s blood pressure, being rudely dismissed by her war-photographer daughter (Zoe Kazan), buying fish for dinner, and lunching with a friend (Winona Ryder) who will betray her—wonders if she’s “having a very quiet nervous breakdown.” She commits sleep crimes, somnambulistically devouring the contents of the fridge and driving in her nightie to the convenience store, where Chris (Keanu Reeves) works. A wayward son with the Son of God tattooed on his chest, he becomes Pippa’s personal Jesus.
In this densely populated ensemble piece, Reeves stands out as the only actor whose damaged character evokes sympathy and avoids cliché. Pippa, played by Wright Penn in near-permanent Stepford Wife mode, isn’t much more than a vehicle for false epiphanies and forced rapprochements—a plastic protagonist with all the nuances of any given character found in the midday-programming slot of WE TV. The small-screen feel of Pippa Lee is partly the result of Declan Quinn’s camerawork, which flattens and dulls (much different from the intimate shooting of Ellen Kuras, the cinematographer for Miller’s first three films). Though she’s to be understood as a 21st-century heroine, Pippa ends up making a new-lease-on-life decision very similar to that of Betty Draper in Mad Men‘s third-season finale. Yet this concluding entry in Miller’s diary of a mad housewife is supposed to make us root for Pippa, a woman with a new fella but with no friends and no apparent job skills—without much of a life at all.