PRIVATE LIFE Review: A Masterful Work of Empathetic Exposure
The title of Tamara Jenkins’ new film becomes a wry joke in and of itself fairly quickly. Concerning the trials of Manhattan couple Rachel and Richard (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, respectively) to become pregnant, the film immediately inserts the audience into possibly the most personal, intimate, and sometimes painful problem a relationship could endure. If that weren’t destabilizing enough, the setting itself forces the couple to have these experiences in spaces where there is no such thing as privacy. The marathon of waiting rooms, doctor’s offices, taxi cabs, restaurants, and the mere fact of existence in a bustling metropolis render the frequently frank discussions between the two instantly, dissonantly humorous. Even the bedroom of their Avenue A apartment fails to grant them privacy from their partying upstairs neighbors.
Rachel and Richard have been trying to start a family for quite a while when we meet them. The first act walks us through a series of failed inseminations, host mothers that end up ghosting them, potential adoptions. With Richard well into his late 40s and Rachel just getting there, they feel the clock ticking. The pair are continually surrounded by people as they bicker and argue about their struggle, with one major blowout taking place on a busy sidewalk outside the clinic. Being in New York City, many ignore them and get on with their day. Others have unwelcome advice to offer. Family and friends, particularly Richard’s sister-in-law Cynthia (Molly Shannon) wish they’d move on so they could be normal again. The film’s many powerful insights come from other people incongruently inserting themselves into the middle of their mess.
Richard’s step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), a directionless twenty-something flailing in her college writing program, becomes the major disruptor. By no means unwelcome, she looks up to her aunt and uncle for their semi-bohemian lifestyle and relative artistic successes - Richard is a former theater director, Rachel an author and playwright. Sadie’s naive enthusiasm, delivered effortlessly and sympathetically by Carter, brings life back into the couple’s life. She becomes a literal lifeline to them as well once she agrees to provide a donor egg for Rachel.
John Carroll Lynch
We’ve seen these types of characters many times before in indie cinema. Noah Baumbach’s name was built on hyper-literary neurotics like Rachel and Richard. But Baumbach’s caustic edge and loathing is nowhere to be found in Jenkins’ script. She interrogates her characters with curiosity and understanding, finding relatability in exposing their fundamental flaws. And there are plenty to pick at. Rachel and Richard bicker and argue about almost anything, their pregnancy woes dominating any and every conversation. The sense arises that the hope of a child is the straw upon which their marriage weighs, even if they don’t seem to particularly enjoy kids. After all, they’re the couple that stands in the hallway in their pajamas when trick’r’treaters knock on their door, befuddled about what to do.
The conflict of the film is low-key, filled with well-observed nuances that tap into recognizable aspects of normal life. Humor pours out from the raw discomfort of the situations in which the characters find themselves wrestling with their deepest fears and hopes. The emotional turns pivot on Hahn and Giamatti’s performances, and they’re up to the task, trading the witty barbs that litter the script before landing on some heavy realizations with exhaustion and frustration. There’s recognition in watching their struggles, of seeing observations that could’ve been taken from a certain point in the life of any couple in America put there on the screen with compassion and intelligence. The continued hope the film concludes with sticks especially well, because odds are the audience has been there too, waiting on life with an optimism that experience may tell us is misguided, and yet we carry it anyway. It’s a demonstration of shared empathy that Private Life excels at.
Private Life is streaming on Netflix.