To get underneath the mass of contradictions that is Pippa Lee, you need to watch her run. There are plenty of opportunities to do that in the movie, especially when we spend time with the 40-something Pippa, essayed by the astonishing Robin Wright Penn. Something about the way she moves; so tightly wound, yet girlish.
Writer/director Rebecca Miller fleshes out this character over 40+ years, from the birth canal to a desert road heading… somewhere. In-between we find a repressed, outwardly composed woman—one who suffers from sleepwalking and quiet anxiety—who escaped from a mother hopped up on goofballs, got lost in partying and pills herself as a teen, and who eventually was rescued by a man old enough to be her grandfather, exchanging chaos for a life of safety, sanity and servitude. As she and her husband settle into a suburban lifestyle, he seems more reluctant to be there than she is, but her problems bubble up in more indirect ways.
The film for the most part is a satisfying trip, though it took me awhile to warm to it. The pacing in the first act is jagged and the laughs sparse as it searches for a tone while the picture threatens to disappear up it’s own quirkhole. But as we come to grips with Pippa through the prism of her younger life, the drama and lighter moments find an equilibrium and the supporting cast brings much of the joy around Wright Penn’s brilliant centre.
Maria Bello is pitch perfect as Suky, the afore-mentioned mother, all wild mood swings and manic vacuuming. Winona Ryder, so deserving of a return to lead roles to match her talent, has a few hilarious scenes of extreme misery as Pippa's poetic friend, while Keanu Reeves plays an fellow anomaly lost in suburbia, delivering a performance adding to the mounting evidence that he should stick to ensemble pictures. A thesis could be written on his grace and depth of his supporting roles (Parenthood, Dangerous Liaisons, Something’s Gotta Give, Thumbsucker
) versus the vacancy of his leads. Also great is Blake Lively as teen Pippa, and in brief cameos, Julianne Moore, Robin Weigert and Monica Bellucci shine. Only Alan Arkin disappoints, once again playing the very same award-winning crusty old guy character we’ve seen from him for years.
Pippa is a tour de force for Wright Penn, an actor who’s been choosy with her roles, working occasionally and picking her projects wisely. Provided this movie gets seen by more than a handful of people, she should get recognition at awards season.