(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.