A hilarious, profanely bougie, and crushingly honest story about a desperate couple trying something — anything — to have a baby before it’s too late, Tamara Jenkins’ first film since “The Savages” has been gestating for nine years, and it’s more than worth the wait.
Another acting showcase for a writer-director who’s previously mined new depths from talents like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, “Private Life” stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as Richard and Rachel Grimes, 47 and 41 respectively. They live on East 6th Street and Avenue A, they have two large dogs, and they’re as hyper-literary as you might expect a theater director and a playwright to be (but they’re not all Noah Baumbach about it). But all of those details — everything that makes them who they are — is subsumed into their seemingly endless quest for a child.
“None of the message boards said it was going to hurt like that!” The first time we meet Rachel, Richard is jabbing a massive needle into her ass, and neither one of them has any idea what kind of hurt lies ahead. By the time the film begins, it’s clear that the couple has been running themselves ragged on “the fertility treadmill” for quite a while. Maybe too long. Many of the early scenes in this epic portrait focus on the dystopian process of In Vitro Fertilization, and how unnatural it can feel to do the most natural thing in the world.
Jenkins renders this part of the Grimes’ ordeal as a high-tech farce that’s anchored by frustration, introducing brilliant physical comedy into a movie that finds it in the most banal of places. A reaction shot of Giamatti trying to masturbate to bad porn at the clinic is pure gold. Elsewhere, Hahn proves to be the Marlon Brando of merkin acting. Best of all might be a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong that builds to a small moment where the great John Carroll Lynch — playing Richard’s brother-in-law — turns a handful of leftovers into a veritable feast.
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All of the laughs are delicately layered atop a bedrock of scar tissue and disappointment, a world of hurt that peaks toward hope when the Grimes take in their stray 25-year-old niece, Sadie (newcomer Kayli Carter, giving off major Juno Temple vibes as she finds the right energy to destabilize and authenticate all of her scenes). Sadie has always thought of Richard and Rachel as the cool parents she never got to have, and it’s only a matter of time before our hero couple are cornered into making a bold request: Would Sadie consider offering Rachel one of her eggs?
It’s not incest since they’re not related by blood. Then again, just because something isn’t wrong doesn’t mean it’s right. Kooky, aimless, and genuinely thrilled to help the aunt and uncle she loves so much, Sadie is all too happy to help; her mom (Molly Shannon) is considerably less enthusiastic. And then there’s the fact that any baby that might come out of this arrangement wouldn’t carry Rachel’s genetic material; it would effectively be Richard and Sadie’s kid, which might complicate things going forward.
And so begins a thorny and thoroughly modern domestic rollercoaster, full of tempered highs and devastating lows and a tenacity that blurs into the quixotic. At times feeling like an entire season of a Netflix series has been crunched down to 127 minutes, “Private Life” is definitely a long and winding road, but the sheer gauntlet that Richard and Rachel put themselves through is best appreciated without interruption. Once they get on the IVF train it’s almost impossible for them to get off, and Jenkins’ shaggy film is structured to underscore how taxing that commitment can be.
Crucially, these characters are so believable that every scene has an internal logic and justifies itself. Giamatti could play this kind of role in his sleep but he doesn’t, texturing Richard with rich shades of love and obstinance; he hasn’t been this good since “Sideways.” Hahn, firmly established as one of the great seriocomic actresses, transitions from high-strung hilarity to utter heartbreak at a moment’s notice, and is equally believable at both ends. Feral and fragile in equal measure, she carries the couple’s pain in every sense of the word; it’s through her eyes that we can appreciate how bittersweet it is that Sadie is becoming the child they never had. Carter, for her part, is wonderfully inscrutable, just flighty enough that Richard and Rachel can never rest easy.
The geometry of this strange triangle is always in flux, but it’s always raw and engaging to watch the Grimes weigh the life they want to create against the ones they’re in the process of living. Their struggle becomes our struggle, and the fundamentally human nature of their shared desire helps the film transcend its blinding whiteness — there are squash movies, and there are movies that just have a squash scene in them… this is one of the latter. Richard and Rachel may once have felt entitled to certain things, but life has disabused them of those notions in the cruelest of ways.
Eventually, as one cycle bleeds into another, “Private Life” grows into less of a story about reproduction than one about resilience. A love story, in its way. Richard and Rachel often question if they even have a marriage anymore (movie characters have a way of clocking the exact amount of time since they’ve last had sex), but it’s truly beautiful to watch them discover they do, and that it might just be stronger than ever. They have so much to give to each other, you can’t help but hope they get a little bit more.
“Private Life” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix later this year.