A rich film with the confidence to take its time, allowing its characters to unfurl and its themes to grow and develop, Private Life is a quietly remarkable comedy-drama about family, marriage and getting older. To accomplish all that, writer-director Tamara Jenkins uses as her entryway a familiar scenario: a fortysomething couple struggling to have a baby. Led by terrific, tricky performances from Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, Private Life keeps shifting and surprising, never offering anything dramatically monumental but speaking precisely about the bonds between people—how they can be threatened but also renewed.
Giamatti and Hahn play Richard and Rachel, who have been married for quite some time, each of them enjoying a satisfying creative life in New York City. (He’s a theater director; she’s a playwright and author.) But in recent years, they’ve struggled to conceive, a process that no amount of fertility treatments has been able to remedy. (They’ve tried adopting, too, which has produced a series of other heartbreaks.) Private Life devotes a significant amount of its early running time to showing how couples such as Richard and Rachel undergo IVF, which has its comic moments but is largely depressingly clinical. (Adding to the despair are the long lines of other expectant couples Richard and Rachel see in the waiting rooms sitting alongside them.)
This could be the setup for a zany baby-fever comedy, but Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, The Savages) uses the couple’s struggles to discuss far more intriguing subject matter. It’s not simply the inability to have a child that eats at these two people. Richard is sensitive about the fact that he only has one testicle, while Rachel can feel her window on motherhood shutting—and the amounts of hormones she has to take cause their own headaches. Their failure to conceive hints that they’re not young anymore and, with that, exacerbates the feelings of regret they have about the career decisions they made. Did they focus on their art at the expense of parenthood? Now that the shine is off their early creative success, is their barrenness another indication of their growing irrelevance? Perhaps most pressingly, are they obsessing about having a child because, deep down, they know their marriage has troubles?
These questions weave through Private Life, helping us to see what’s eating at Richard and Rachel, even when they don’t express it to each other. Jenkins succinctly places these characters in their particular world—that of the creative elite of New York—and although the dialogue references philosophers and Wendy Wasserstein, the filmmaker is unromantic about the limitations of living in such rarefied air. Richard and Rachel are artists whose best years are probably behind them, and their creativity and intelligence offer no buttress to the sadness and futility their infertility has provoked.
Then, one day, they hit upon an idea. After deciding that finding an egg donor feels a bit too impersonal, they bring their 25-year-old niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) into their home. She longs to be a writer but feels blocked at her college, and she asks her cool aunt and uncle if she can crash with them while she clears her head. They love Sadie and are happy to welcome her—they’ve always connected because of their shared passion for the arts. (Sadie is the stepdaughter of Richard’s brother, played by John Carroll Lynch, who’s married to Molly Shannon’s uptight Cynthia.) It would be unconventional, but what if Richard and Rachel ask Sadie to be their egg donor?
Again, this is the premise for farce, but Jenkins has a keen eye for the drama and ethical implications of the couple’s proposition. Sadie agrees—she’s a bit rootless anyway, and she wants to make her favorite people happy—but that’s hardly the end of the complications that will visit these characters. Inevitably, those watching Private Life will wonder if the fertilization process will work, but what’s notable about the film is how much of the suspense concerns other matters. We come to care deeply about these characters, and we see how Richard and Rachel begin to question their decision. Is there something inherently selfish about their action, especially because it’s being done with a family member? And Sadie’s willingness opens up thorny emotions with her own mother, played beautifully by Shannon with a prickliness that also leaves room for Cynthia’s genuine concern for her daughter.
At just over two hours, Private Life may feel a bit long in places, and yet Jenkins needs the time for us to live with these characters and endure the ups and downs of Richard and Rachel’s fertility ordeals. Giamatti gives one of his surest, simplest performances in quite a while, playing a supportive husband who, we suspect, may not be quite as gung-ho about conceiving as his wife is. And while Carter is very good as a young woman trying to find herself—full of youthful enthusiasm but also provocation—Private Life is mostly a glorious showcase for Hahn.
In the past, Hahn has proven to be a deft comedian in everything from Parks & Recreation to Step Brothers, going broad for the Bad Moms movies while receiving acclaim for Transparent and I Love Dick. She can be awfully funny in Private Life—there won’t be a better vagina joke all year—but more often Rachel is flailing, and Hahn makes that disillusionment poignant without an ounce of cutesiness. The inability to conceive bothers Richard, but for Rachel, it’s a deeper wound—one that goes far beyond being deprived of motherhood. Hahn and Jenkins make the woman’s pain palpable, layered and also a bit ineffable, illustrating how people reach middle age not entirely sure how they got there or where they’re headed next.
Blessedly, Private Life never gazes at its navel while offering these observations. The specificity of both the circumstances and these characters’ relationships fights off cliché or self-pity. This seems like a movie about having a baby, but it ultimately becomes a film about marriage and the choices made to keep that relationship going—not to mention the sacrifices and compromises. Even as Richard and Rachel try unsuccessfully to bring a new person into this world, this film boasts an abundance of life.
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Writer: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch
Release Date: Premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival