One of our era’s great comedies, Tamara Jenkins’ intimate, incisive Private Life, centers on issues of fertility and surrogacy, though its broader concern is time itself — how it surges on even as everything we might have dedicated our lives to withers around us.
Its leads, feminist writer Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), a one-time wunderkind of no-budget theatrical productions, find themselves desperate to conceive a child even as the doctors they pay (with borrowed money) thousands to speak frankly of the odds: The couple is too late, her eggs too old, his sperm too uncertain. Nearing 50, they’re not just facing the end of their potency. They live in a rent-stabilized East Village apartment they could never afford at market rates. Her new book is being wildly mishandled by her publisher, who tries to market it as an uplifting read fit for Oprah’s book club; the way-off Broadway theater world Richard once ruled has moved on, and he clearly lacks the vigor at 47 to mount a scrappy DIY production. (And there’s no longer even a Village Voice to review it — or for him to complain about no longer being relevant.)
They’re an expertly drawn, fully convincing pair of Gen X types: the idealistic couple who committed themselves to art and ideas, never selling out, only to discover that, now, in 2018, their hard-won credibility hasn’t bought them much. Worse, in pursuit of it, they kept putting off the crucial decision of whether to have a child — and now it may be too late. Together, they’re facing a lonely middle age of limited means in a city that no longer seems to need them. A child wouldn’t just fulfill their own innate needs to love and be loved; it could also be their last, best chance to improve a fallen world. Eventually, after a host of piercingly funny scenes at clinics or in their apartment, Richard administering painful shots and Rachel insisting he must be doing it wrong, they face one last possibility. Perhaps they could hire a young woman to donate an egg.
Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s beaming stepniece, a creative-writing student at Bard who comes to crash with the couple while she gets her life together. Marveling at their home, at all they’ve given up for art, this guileless relation gushes compliments that she doesn’t realize are insulting. She’s surprising sunshine in their clutter of books, a break from their broken-hearted routine of schlubbing around in underpants and ghastly robes. You can see, in their encouraging of her writing, that they would be good parents. But their every interaction with her also is stained by their need. Even before they pop the inevitable question, we’re left to wonder whether they’re preying on her — whether this is also a horror story. Then, after she has agreed to donate an egg, the tension grows even more acute. How will her protective suburban mother (Molly Shannon) and father (John Carroll Lynch) react? And can everyone get through Thanksgiving without disaster?
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That Thanksgiving scene proves riotous. But Jenkins (director of The Savages and Slums of Beverly Hills) is always more interested in emotional truth than she is in laughs. Throughout Private Life’s tense 124 minutes, she continually achieves both at once. Yet again she proves herself marvelously attuned to the milieu of her people, each detail precise and revealing, and also to the hilariousness of any of us at our most ordinary; the way Rachel speed-cleans the bathroom without pants or panties on is both entirely natural yet transgressively comic when put up on a screen. Her excellent cast embodies this duo without condescension or self-consciousness, betraying no sense that anything they say or do is in the least bit funny — or, when they’re plying young Sadie with street tacos or assuring her that the hormone treatments will be no big deal, that any of this is creepy.
As in The Savages, which paired Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as siblings, Jenkins allows both of her leads actually to be leads – they share the film and most scenes, and much of its vital power arises from the connection between them. Like many longtime couples, they seem to have gone a bit mad together; some of the film’s suspense comes from the question of whether they’ve gone harmlessly mad. Especially moving are the ebbs in that connection, the moments Rachel and Richard fall out of sync and bicker about approaches to fertility or how often they have sex or whether Richard is a little too into evaluating the physique of a potential egg donor. Subtly but convincingly, the two always find their way back to each other.
Carter, too, is convincing and amusing in the role of Sadie, a young woman whose understanding of just what she’s signed up for at times is comically uncertain. Sadie is inexperienced but she’s not dumb. Despite Rachel and Richard’s sense of out-of-time failure, she has taken them as a romantic example of how to live; it’s one of this moving film’s most potent developments to see them finally understand that she’s even more like them than they expect. Like them, she’s going to face a life of beautiful disappointment.
Private Life premieres October 5 on Netflix.