Indie legend Tamara Jenkins returns with an unusually compassionate comedy about a middle-age couple's struggle to conceive.
Antiseptic hallways, glib doctors and tense waiting rooms (where every couple seems to be facing down the unthinkable) make up the early goings of Private Life, a movie about the heart-wrenching calculations of in vitro fertilization. Call it a major medical miracle, then, that this subject has found writer-director Tamara Jenkins—last seen with 2007's scalpel-sharp The Savages—who transforms this crucible of disappointment and colossal financial strain into something close to a riot, infused with courage and the same dark laughs as last year's girlfriend-in-a-coma dramedy The Big Sick.
Jenkins, whose taste in adventurous actors is peerless, here gives us Paul Giamatti and a revelatory Kathryn Hahn, huggable and frazzled in every frame, as Richard and Rachel, two bickersome over-forty East Village bohemians who venture out of a rent-stabilized apartment to combat their babylessness on every front. We hear their marriage is a shambles, that they're "fertility junkies" and "gambling addicts," but if anything, their bond is unusually honest—it's the kind of simpatico urban relationship in which screaming bouts on the street indicate an inability to be false. These are verbally unencumbered theater people who, even at their grumbly lowest, can liken their desperate situation to a Wendy Wasserstein play or The Handmaid's Tale.
Into their sad parade of tush injections and pregnancy dead ends comes Sadie (the wonderfully open Kayli Carter), their 25-year-old step-niece. She's a neurotic Bard dropout who hasn't launched. (The character feels like an older cousin to Natasha Lyonne's sarcastic teen in Jenkins's feature debut, Slums of Beverly Hills.) Sadie moves in with Richard and Rachel to find herself, and it's here that Private Life becomes painfully bittersweet: The three of them make up a perfect family, supportive and garrulous over taco-truck takeout. When the moment comes—as you know it will—for Sadie's "art parents" to share with her their secret wish for a donor egg, Jenkins delivers her movie to a rare place of sympathy via three knockout scenes. First comes a near-attempt to breach the subject over breakfast, the good vibes too sweet to ruin. Then there's a bolder conversation (your heart leaps into your throat when Sadie, looking for a purpose in life, agrees to help them) and finally, a ruinous Thanksgiving toast amid Sadie's scowling parents (Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch, both impressively understated) that joins the ranks of classic onscreen holiday fails.
Perhaps unavoidably given its DNA, Private Life sometimes feels like a Woody Allen film (he even briefly touched on this topic in Hannah and Her Sisters, which is fine cinematic company to be in), and Jenkins occasionally leans too heavily on the jazz. But the riskiness of her set-up, one that blooms with complications and rawness, is a thing of beauty. Her film is a gift to those people who discreetly flinch at every dinner party and kid-celebratory anecdote, the odds of middle age stacked against them. Even if that audience isn't you, you may still resonate with a marriage that strays so far from its original spark, it comes close to dying out. This is a story you'll want to watch to its exquisitely compassionate ending: a wordless final-credits aria that, as with Michael Clayton and Call Me by Your Name, speaks volumes about the nature of minute-to-minute emotional survival. Genetics be damned, there's always so much to give.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
John Carroll Lynch