Perched uncomfortably between flat whimsy and Lifetime movie crescendos, the coming-of-middle-age comic drama "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" is rough going.
Writer-director Rebecca Miller, adapting her own novel about a 50-year-old people-pleasing housewife's long overdue reassessment of her life, is after the elusive charm of a highbrow chick flick. To that end, she's shrewd enough to cast melancholic beauty Robin Wright as the title character, who upon moving into a well-appointed Connecticut retirement community with her retired publisher husband (Alan Arkin) begins to reflect on the various women she's been before her current perfect-spouse persona.
To watch Wright's deceptively tranquil face process a humiliating family hiccup, or Arkin explore the contours of a professional grouch, is to know what pleasurably deep acting can do. But the trouble starts when Pippa's flashbacks -- to her pill-popping manic-depressive mother (an overwrought Maria Bello), to her rebel angel teen self (an ethereally pretty if lukewarm Blake Lively), and finally to her husband's crazy first wife (Monica Bellucci, doing her own thing) -- let loose a swarm of tonal inconsistencies that Miller never fuses into anything meaningful. Pippa's crisis of guilt -- about troubled lives she couldn't fix and parts of her personality she rashly abandoned -- is ultimately swamped by Miller's own sketchy grasp of what's funny or heartbreaking or illuminating about her characters.
The kick is that she gets close enough at times with her material -- a cagey bit of casting here (Keanu Reeves as a prickly yet trustworthy neighbor), a good line there -- to at least warrant a sympathetic wince when it goes off the rails, as when she crams in an animated scene or swerves into head-scratching melodramatics (the less said about Winona Ryder's whiny character the better). Overall, though, it's a drearily off-kilter effort from a filmmaker who navigated humor and pathos well in her last feature, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." Where Pippa has many inner selves, Miller is regrettably just all over the place.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun