(Editor’s note: This review was originally published after we attended a screening of the film earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. We’re republishing it today, Friday, October 5th, 2018, because it debuts via streaming on Netflix today.)
Private Life, from writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills), would be worth seeing just for the decision to cast Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn together, a supergroup casting that’s kind of like my personal Avengers. But that’s not all it has going for it: It’s also a ballsy take on a 40-something couple trying to squeeze through their shrinking fertility window, and a display of virtuosic comedy writing and direction — this in the midst of a movie that isn’t a straight-up comedy. It’s hilarious without being light, and honest to a fault. It’s too committed to telling the truth about infertility to allow itself an easier viewing experience.
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play Rachel and Richard, 41 and 47, respectively. (That shaves three years off both actors’ real ages. I can’t believe Hahn is 44.) They’re an artsy New York couple who’ve done exactly what Mike Judge warned us about in Idiocracy, put off having a child until it’s too late — or at least, too late without a lot of money, medical help, and tough decisions.
In one early scene, Giamatti sits in the fertility clinic’s masturbatorium, staring ruefully at the hardcore porn on the waiting room-style TV. Pants around ankles, he accidentally raises the volume to earsplitting levels, knocking the batteries out of the remote as he fumbles to turn it down. He slowly realizes he’s going to have to waddle over to the set to turn it down. Only when he gets up, the chair’s wax paper sticks to his bare ass.
It’s a perfect scene. Not just the slapstick progression itself, but everything, from Giamatti’s face to the anatomical specificity of the words the porn stars are screaming — not just “cock” but “the head of your cock.” The way Giamatti utilizes that perfect hangdog of his, a face that’s 30% lower eyelids, he’s like the Michael Jordan of silent resignation. It’s a symphony of comedy, and it doesn’t even have dialogue.
At its best moments, Private Life is like that. Just don’t go in expecting some sort of an Apatowian romp log lined “What’s so funny about IVF?” Tamara Jenkins isn’t interested in the surface-level takes on infertility, where the failure to reproduce is a funny story you tell at parties. She does her best to deliver the truth, and the truth is that it could crush you. When Hahn and Giamatti trade barbs, they’re frequently funny, but they also sting. Hurts are never forgotten in time for the next gag.
Facing obstacle after obstacle, Richard eventually has to borrow money from his brother, played by John Carroll Lynch. It’s yet another example of “Why hadn’t someone thought of this earlier?” casting, using Lynch against type as the browbeaten nice guy, similar to Tracy Letts’ role in Ladybird. He gives Richard the money, over the objections of his wife, played by Molly Shannon (this movie should win an Oscar for casting), who sees their attempts at having a child as an addiction, something that shouldn’t be enabled.
Into the midst of this baby fever walks Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s brother’s 25-year-old stepdaughter, an aspiring writer who’s on hiatus from liberal arts college and can’t seem to figure out her life, but worships her cool novelist aunt and playwright uncle, who have generously agreed to let her live with them on East 6th Street. Sadie is a character I haven’t seen before, brutally skewering her pretentious classmates and equally critical of herself, combining mild to moderate nuttiness with genuine empathy and undeniable charm, all delivered with a healthy dose of vocal fry. “Oops, am I whale tailing?” she rasps, after she bends over in front of a smitten coworker and turns around to see him staring at her thong.
Above all she feels real — obnoxious at a level consistent with someone who spends a lot of her life in writing workshops (yes I am familiar with this world why do you ask), but never quite so much that you hate her. She’s perfect as a daughter that you sometimes want to strangle but can’t help love. With only a handful of screen credits, Carter holds her own in a cast of heavy hitters.
As frequently hilarious, perfectly cast, and wonderfully acted as Private Life is, you live and die right along with Rachel and Richard through their every procreation attempt, sharing their exhaustion and bouts of hopelessness. Because the fantastic never swoops in to lighten the load, it can sap your energy. That may keep it from being a hit, but in a way it’s also necessary. This isn’t just a comedy; it’s a corrective. To the thousand other infertility plots in movies past that use a couple’s worst fear to gin up easy drama only to stamp a fake smile on it three scenes later like it never happened. Private Life refuses to cheat, for better and worse.