'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee'

Cardboard characters and severe problems of tone fatally flaw this awkward relationship drama.

Cardboard characters and severe problems of tone fatally flaw the awkward satirical relationship drama “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.” Fourth feature from helmer-writer Rebecca Miller (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Personal Velocity,” “Angela”) feels as schizophrenic as its eponymous heroine. “Reinvented” from Miller’s own novel, this star-studded tale of a 50ish married woman coming to terms with her troubled past reps something of a pig-in-a-poke for buyers who nabbed presales rights. While watchable, it’s not exactly a commercial property or, for that matter, arthouse material, and thus reps a marketing challenge unlikely to receive critical support.

The story opens with Pippa (Robin Wright Penn, with a perpetually placid smile), hosting a dinner party with Stepford wife-like perfection at the Connecticut retirement community she’s just moved into with much older publisher hubby Herb (Alan Arkin). As guests hail her as a model spouse, her inner voice confides, “I’ve lived more than one life.”

Introduced by Pippa’s voiceover, those other lives are revealed in a wannabe picaresque style and intercut with the Lees’ present-day existence in “Wrinklesbury.” We see Pippa growing up with manic, diet-pill-popping mother (Maria Bello) and running away at 16 (played by Blake Lively) to join lesbian aunt Trish (Robin Weigert) and Trish’s “dangerous” lover Kat (Julianne Moore), whose sideline taking S&M porn photos generates a chuckle.

Pippa’s memories of the past and the guilt she feels, particularly over an incident involving Herb’s wacko second wife (Monica Bellucci), start to create a “quiet nervous breakdown” in which she acts out repressed urges in her sleep. Luckily, she finds a confidante of sorts in her neighbor’s son Chris (Keanu Reeves).

While the film marks a change of pace from the intense seriousness of Miller’s earlier work, she never finds the dark comic edge that would make “Pippa” more satisfying viewing. Indeed, she never sustains any tone at all. The dialogue teeters from flat comedy to wince-worthy whimsy, with detours through blithe and earnest. Visual style, too, is all over the place.

Although Pippa declares, “I’ve had enough of being an enigma, I want to be known,” she’s not developed enough for viewers to really care. Likewise, the supporting characters are paper-thin. Of the actors, only Bello and Moore offer a suggestion of the over-the-top thesping the story seems to call for. Reeves (who offered phenomenal character work in “Thumbsucker”) hasn’t got much to do here other than look good with a big tattoo of Jesus on his chest.

Tech package seems a tad constricted. Lenser Declan Quinn and production designer Michael Shaw suggest the story’s multiple time periods, the camera drifting from one set to the next. Period music does a better job of evoking the era than the laughable costumes, hair and makeup.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Production

An Elevation Filmworks production in co-production with Plan B Entertainment. (International sales: IM Global, Los Angeles.) Executive producers, Jean Luc De Fanti, Jeff Sagansky, Brad Pitt. Produced by Lemore Syvan, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner. Directed, written by Rebecca Miller.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Declan Quinn; editor, Sabine Hoffman; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Michael Shaw; costume designer, Jennifer von Mayhauser; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeff Pullman. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 8, 2009. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Julianne Moore, Alan Arkin, Winona Ryder, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald, Blake Lively, Robin Weigert.

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