It took 11 long years for director Tamara Jenkins to return with her first feature, since The Savages. And returned she has, with a brutal and painful odyssey of the “pregnancy treadmill.” Private Life, is the determination of an aging couple struggling to get pregnant. It’s honest, funny, soul crushing, and resilient all at once.
Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) are working professionals. They encapsulate, as their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), says, the asshole instagram loft living artists. Or something of that kind. Both have waited too long to have children, mostly focusing on their careers in the early portions of their lives. Richard, a former actor and playhouse runner, is played by Paul Giamatti. Here, Giamatti is in his best role since the Ides of March, breaking out of the psychopathic manipulative individuals he’s portrayed in Straight Outta Compton and Love & Mercy to bring a softer personality who often puts his foot in his mouth. He’s joined by Kathryn Hahn, playing an author with a tricky temper.
The two trade barbs, as Richard displays a dry sarcastic humor, while Rachel is quick and stinging in her’s. However, the two want a child and they’ve been through every possible method to do so, TSE (testicular sperm extraction), IKSE, IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), IUI, (Intrauterine insemination) etc. They’re “fertility junkies,” yet none of their efforts have worked.
The two are also “supported” by their extended family: Richard’s brother, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), his wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon), and their daughter Sadie.
Their newest plan is to get their just dropped out of grad school niece, Sadie, to donate her eggs. One questions if their clawing toward their niece is exploitative, but mostly it’s just desperation. Because Jenkins expertly illuminates the path to fertility and pregnancy, and the fraught pitfalls and risks that align with adoption, donor eggs, IVF’s, IUI’s, and surrogacy. That long and sometimes emotionally debilitating journey, is demonstrated not just in Richard and Rachel’s crumbling relationship, but in the simple shot of a doctor’s office. Jenkins has multiple shots of said office. The faces of hopeful couples change, but Richard and Rachel remain the same, from holiday-to-holiday, and year-to-year.
But Private Life isn’t just a film about pregnancy, it’s also how we find meaning in the things we can pass on. Molly Shannon as Cynthia, encapsulates this need. As she attempts to remain youthful, she’s cognizant of her daughter “protecting” their family gene pool. There’s a commentary here of old old-fashioned morality, how our understanding of genes and cells has shifted from that of a spiritual assessment to a scientific, and quite frankly, practical calculation.
Private Life will stand as one of the high points of Giamatti and Hahn’s respective careers. And while the film does dawdle, and I mean it could have been twenty minutes shorter, Jenkins provides audiences with a near comedic documentary of what pregnancy and the gift of life means. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take another 11 years for her to get a crack at a feature.