Rebecca Lee Miller’s melodrama The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee—which she based on her own novel—is told from the perspective of the title character, a former free spirit who suffers a spell of sleepwalking and uses the incidents as impetus to look back at why she settled down in the first place. Robin Wright Penn plays Pippa, the wife of aging book editor Alan Arkin. As Arkin eases awkwardly into semi-retirement—dragging his much younger wife along with him—she reflects on her turbulent childhood, which involved fleeing the confines of the suburbs and the mania of her pill-popping mother Maria Bello. The young Pippa (played by Blake Lively) eventually crashes with her lesbian aunt (Robin Weigert) and her aunt’s lover (Julianne Moore), a photographer specializing in kitschy S&M. In the early ’70s, she heads to California and becomes a part-time go-go dancer and full-time druggie wastrel, prior to meeting Arkin, who saves her. As Miller presents all Pippa’s phases, the movie considers how people change, sometimes from moment to moment.
Pippa Lee’s flashback sequences are reasonably strong, capturing how a young woman learns the hard, necessary lesson that adults don’t always make sense. But the modern-day material—which revolves around Penn’s weird nighttime blackout spells, during which she gorges on cake—strains for relevance. Penn and Arkin’s circle of literary pals drip with bon mots, which Miller pointedly contrasts with their grunting, no-bullshit next-door neighbor Keanu Reeves. The movie tries to play both sides, criticizing the sterility of Penn’s upper-middle-class existence (especially in contrast to Reeves’ “realness”) while taking seriously her near-paralyzing anxiety over her relatively stress-free life. The end result is a movie that all but squanders its poignant meditation on the nagging inconsistencies of human beings by couching them in a fussy, contrived indie drama with a recognizable face in every role. For a movie about the unpredictability of life, Pippa Lee plays it awfully safe.