Private Life is a deeply personal look into a couple’s struggle to start a family. This comedic drama is beautifully written and directed by Tamara Jenkins and stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti who both give noteworthy performances. The set up is familiar but Jenkins’ screenplay stirs up emotions that are not always so quick to rise to the surface.
The heart of Private Life is in the screenplay. Rachel and Richard (Hahn and Giamatti) are a married couple in their forties trying to start their family. After years of trying on their own and failed adoptions, they become fully consumed in the IVF process. The plot of a middle-aged couple trying to get pregnant (whether in TV or in movies) is not an original idea. What is unique with Jenkins’ screenplay is how she addresses it. She throws you in head first into the unbearably difficult process and provides a beautiful look into a deeply personal, emotionally gripping, and intimate battle that is all too real for so many couples. Each of these characters truly bares the weight of their journey. They are emotionally and physically exhausted, Richard is so obviously ready to throw in the towel while Rachel is entirely consumed by it. As the film continues they become more aware of the wedge that all of this is having on their marriage. Both of them place aspects of blame on the other person and they start to question why they’re fighting so hard for something that for them is so unattainable. Within the first half hour it’s impossible not to sympathize with them. Your hearts breaks every time they receive bad news and you’re overjoyed over the smallest of victories. Regardless of the hopelessness surrounding infertility, Jenkins manages to insert plenty of hilarious moments to lighten up the tension. Each time this happens it is perfectly timed and transforms what is notably depressing into a hilarious moment. It’s a welcome distraction that feels genuine and adds real humanity.
When Rachel and Richard discover that their first cycle of IVF has failed, their doctor suggests they look into third party donation. As they’re trying to wrap their head around the thought of seeking out a egg donor, their niece calls. Sadie played wonderfully by Kayli Carter, Sadie decides to drop out of college and live with her favorite aunt and uncle in Manhattan where she hopes to become inspired and further develop herself as a writer. Sadie is a welcome distraction for Rachel and Richard. Not only does she bring a new level of joy into the their lives but she also offers hope. Her presence leaves a positive imprint on the film. Her character is idealistic, innocent, energetic and alive in a way that is completely opposite of Rachel and Richard. The essential theme weaved throughout Private Life is empathy. I found that I was easily able to insert myself into this film through multiple characters because they worked so well as a tool to invoke an even deeper sense of understanding for their experiences. Jenkin’s screenplay allows you to gain multiple perspectives into the circumstances facing each of the characters. Even something as simple as an argument during Thanksgiving dinner becomes an incredibly empathetic experience.
Two other elements that add to the film are its lead performances. A couple so beaten down by their unfortunate circumstances; they’re barely holding onto their marriage. Paul Giamatti takes a backseat as a reserved theater director. This is not the loud and boisterous performance you might expect from him. Instead it was a pleasant surprise to see his character is far more quiet, subdued and haunted by their unsuccessful attempts of starting a family. Giamatti’s performance is simple yet meaningful and that’s what makes it truly compelling. The second powerful performance comes from Kathryn Hahn, until recently she has been cast as over the top characters in comedies. Her character struggles with her decision to prolong their family in exchange for her career as an author. She places blame on her husband for being unable to physically produce and feels betrayed by the theory that she can have a career and family without compromising either one. Like Giamatti, hers is internal, distant, and unlike any of her former performances. It’s toned down more than we are used to seeing which is smart because her reservation feels appropriate to the experience surrounding the character. Together with Giamatti, they are able to bring a sense of reality to these characters. Their chemistry is excellent and when it’s just the two of them onscreen it’s captivating. With the help of Jenkins’ directing, they truly capture the emotional intimacy, brutally honest realizations, and sometimes hurtful conversations shared amongst a couple.
Overall, Private Life is a simple film, full of authenticity that is incredibly well written. It’s a powerful representation of real life circumstances that will cause you to take a look inward as you watch.
5 out of 5 stars
Director: Tamara Jenkins Writer: Tamara Jenkins Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Kayli Carter, Denis O'Hare, John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon, Release Date: October 5th Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours and 3 minutes