Pippa Lee feels dislocated when she and her husband Herb move from Manhattan to a retirement community. He’s older than she, they have two children who are young adults, and the daughter hardly speaks to Pippa. Pippa tells us about her life, in long flashbacks, starting with her birth to a mom who was a social dynamo and addicted to pills. As a teen, Pippa moves out and lives a hippie life until meeting Herb, who was then married to a young siren. Pippa discloses tragedies and discoveries. In the present, she’s sleepwalking at night and talking from time to time with a burned-out case, the 35-year-old son of a neighbor. Can Pippa connect?
User Reviews: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a film that concerns itself with the people in it, rather than a narrative. Each character is unique and well developed, but more importantly, feels real and easy to care for. There are no cardboard cutouts or roles simply convenient to the plot. Their actions are delightfully unexpected, yet fully consistent with who they are. Even the minor roles feel like they’ve had 2 hours worth of backstory thought out for them.
The backstory we get to see is that of Pippa Lee (Penn). She has recently moved into a suburban neighbourhood with her husband Herb (Arkin), a publisher who is at least a few decades her senior. Herb has just retired after having his third heart attack, and intends his new home to be his final resting place. The couple have two grown children and some old friends who are witnesses to what appears to be a facade of marital bliss.
The story of how Pippa ended up in this arrangement, starting with her early childhood, is told concurrently with the main narrative. We learn of Pippa’s pill-popping mother (Bello), her aunt’s gay lover (Moore), and how she met Herb. Meanwhile, the suppressed malaise in the present time begins to make itself known through a number of events, starting with the overnight disappearance of half of a chocolate cake and the appearance of a sock in the refrigerator.
What is truly remarkable about this film are the performances. Robin Wright Penn gives a stunning portrayal of a woman who seems to say more with a smile than with her words. It might be early in the year, but I would not be surprised to see an Oscar nod come voting time. She is a pleasure to watch, and really breathes air into what could’ve been a lifeless character.
Alan Arkin is great as usual, and the blunt dialogue of his character suits him well. When Pippa’s character tells us she longs to listen to him speak, we are in full agreement. Winona Ryder and Julianne Moore also make their minor characters stand out with quirky delightfulness. Even Keanu Reeves is adequate in his role.
One thing this film seems to lack, however, is a strong narrative. At times, it feels like a loosely bound collection of anecdotes from Pippa’s life. While each of these anecdotes have their own appeal and quite a few laughs, they don’t quite manage to come together into a compelling story, without which the film is just another forgettable family drama, albeit with really interesting people.