'Private Life': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Outstanding performances drive a film that gets comfortable with perpetual discomfort.

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play a couple struggling to conceive in Tamara Jenkins' long-awaited follow-up to 'The Savages.'

Whether they acknowledge them or not, it seems likely most middle-aged people hide some opinions about their peers who go the extra mile, and then more, in an attempt to have children. You root for them or think they're insane or both simultaneously; quite possibly you pity them, whatever side you're on. Playing such a couple in Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti live through both the despair and the unkillable hope of this "project," eventually risking more than their marriage on an unconventional path that just might bear fruit. How one feels about their values will color one's opinion of this sometimes trying but always sensitive picture — the long overdue third feature by Jenkins, who has waited 11 years (almost to the day) since the Sundance premiere of The Savages to deliver a follow-up.

Kahn and Giamatti play Rachel and Richard, two fortysomething New York writers whose successes have not delivered them financially from the now bro-ified East Village. Having publicly tried and failed all the other methods of bringing a baby into their home, they are now secretly embarking on in vitro fertilization.

While the process begins with some slapsticky speed bumps (yeah, Richard has difficulties producing his specimen), the checklist-like titles Jenkins gives the film's chapters — "The Retrieval," "The Transfer," "The Test" — suggest this might be simply a lighthearted look at how IVF was scary and expensive and made people grouchy but worked great in the end.

Not so. Even after some unexpected add-on procedures (we'll just need a $10,000 check before we proceed, sir), it's a flop. The couple's doctor (Denis O'Hare), clearly ready for them to call it a day, admits that there is one further possibility: an egg donor. Hormone-pumped Rachel has been tightly wound up to this point, but this is the chance for Hahn and Jenkins to let her briefly unravel. Furious with Richard that he's even considering this path, she erupts on the sidewalk outside the clinic: "Why don't you just go screw another woman, then?!," she asks bizarrely, before pointing at a passerby and shouting "there — her!"

As in most long-lasting relationships, Richard has his own issues he's allowing to fester; the film will get to those later. But here, Giamatti embodies patient commitment to the couple's long-term goal. Richard keeps the idea on the table, and soon Rachel has come around. They comb through websites with online-dating-like profiles of potential donors (it's "eBay for ova," Rachel quips). But the whole thing is pretty weird.

"It'd be different if we had ... a family friend" who was interested, Richard says at one point. The dicey idea is barely out of his mouth when his phone rings: It's the couple's step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), a bright kid wondering if she might crash with them in the city for a while after ditching Bard mid-semester.

For a film as long as this one, which sometimes seems to purposely stretch things out to make us feel the agony of its protagonists' efforts, Jenkins might have invested a few more beats in sequences such as this, being more stealthy with the narrative setup/payoff. (Another too-clearly telegraphed moment comes at a doomed Thanksgiving dinner.) Before you can say "start a fund for the family therapy right now," Rachel and Richard are moving Sadie into the house and preparing to ask if she'll give them one of her oocytes.

That conversation is exquisitely awkward, but there's real warmth in the way this eventually plays out — Carter makes Sadie smart and generous — and there's more subtle drama than expected when news of this plan reaches Sadie's parents: Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch are excellently cast, and Jenkins invests fully in their disparate responses to the news. She even squeezes a couple of laughs into the first confrontation, though in general the film is less funny than expected.

More ups and downs lie ahead — more, perhaps, than a film requires in order to take us on this journey. But looked at independently, so many scenes contain something raw or truthful that one understands Jenkins' reluctance to trim. The inessential moment, for instance, when Richard explodes indignantly at a doctor who has been rude: Look at the mess he makes, and see how the other aspiring parents in the waiting room silently help him clean up. They get it.

So, yes: A moviegoer who himself has made the very obviously correct choice not to bring children into this world may look at Private Life the way an unbeliever looks at Silence. Look at these nice people, suffering so much for such stupid reasons, and taking so long to do it.

But they're such interesting people, and the person telling their story cares enough to make them real.


Production company: Likely Story
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch
Director-Screenwriter: Tamara Jenkins
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu
Executive producer: Caroline Jaczko
Director of photography: Christos Voudouris
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Brian A. Kates
Casting directors: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

132 minutes