The following is a review of Private Life — Directed by Tamara Jenkins.
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is a dramedy about a never-ending pursuit of parenthood. The film follows a frustrated middle-aged couple — Richard (played by Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (played by Kathryn Hahn) — as they desperately attempt to become parents. Expensive medical procedures, adoption, egg donor — you name it and they’ve either tried or considered the method. When their desperation reaches a new high, the couple decides to ask Richard’s niece, Sadie (played by Kayli Carter), if she would consider being their egg donor, even though her family might be against it.
Private Life is an intimate look at a couple’s frustration as their relationship becomes about nothing more than their pursuit to become parents. To them, their childlessness has come to define them, and the constant reminders of their childlessness (like kids-trick-or-treating, or couples walking down the street with their children) only serve to crush them. As such this film has some painful and brutally honest acts of desperation. Rachel and Richard both struggle with the idea that failed reproduction has become a defining part of their relationship.
And yet, this isn’t just one of those uncomfortably emotional films about a pain that tears a relationship apart. Jenkins’ film masters an awkward hilarity thanks to a wonderful ensemble cast led by Hahn and Giamatti. The co-leads are two funny people who here exude this sense of normalcy as well as the awkward honesty that Jenkins is going for.
I love how smoothly and effortlessly the opening of the film plays with our expectations that are based on dialogue alone. We start by not being able to see anything, and based on sounds and dialogue, it, sort of, sounds like Rachel and Richard are sleeping together. But while they are in bed together, he is actually just pushing a needle into her backside. It is an awkward and deeply intimate opening to an intimate, honest, and sometimes hilarious film.
Hahn and Giamatti have great chemistry, and they play well off one another. Hahn has this wonderful ability to find hilarity even in the saddest scenarios, but she also finds it in herself to suffer crushing emotional breakdowns on-screen. Giamatti has a naturalistic and authentic quietness to his character, but he also adds in some crucial dedication and frustration to his sometimes calm demeanour.
Hahn is especially amusing. There is a hilarious couples argument about a provocative painting, and later, during another fight, she compares her husband to Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes’ character in Rosemary’s Baby) because he is considering the egg donor-option. It really is a hilarious moment, but it is also uncomfortable because of how sad their argument about a genetic link is.
Both Hahn and Giamatti are very impressive here, and the same can be said for newcomer Kayli Carter, as well as both John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon, neither of which played the type of character that I expected them to.
What didn’t work for me, though, were some curious chapter-indicating title cards that I didn’t think served a real purpose. Also, I thought the film was too long. I do, however, understand that the film’s length makes their pursuit even more distressing and more of a struggle than it already is, which is why the length wasn’t as big of a problem as it might’ve been.
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is one of the best Netflix films, but it is so much more than that. The film is an unshowy and honest glimpse into the life of a married couple struggling with the defining feature of their marriage. I loved it.
8.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.