Private Life starts with what sounds like an extremely private moment: shuffling, muted grunts and sheet-rustling, playing over a black screen. The natural inclination is think the the film is about to open on a couple either in the throes of middle-aged passion, or maybe some post-coital awkwardness. We’ve seen enough character-driven dramedies to know how these things usually work. Instead we cut to Paul Giamatti preparing to jam a hypodermic needle into Kathryn Hahn’s bared hip. These fortysomething downtowners — he’s a former theater guru-turned-artisanal pickle entrepreneur; she’s a lauded playwright and writer — are not making love. They’re trying to make a baby. And that distinction is exactly what fuels writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ tale of chasing the ever-elusive goal of parenthood. The scene that follows that transitional shot, involving much bickering, frustration, dirty looks, fatigue, raised voices, a mutual affection with frayed edges and a desperate need to make this conception 2.0 thing work, sets the pace for everything that follows. You’re about to watch two people go through their own personal get-pregnant-or-die-tryin’ hell. It’ll often be raw, and funny. It won’t be pretty.
For the first hour or so of this brittle, bittersweet portrait of boho-bougies v. biology, viewers tag along as the twosome, Richard and Rachel, negotiate the minefields of the Infertility Industrial Complex. We’re there in the trenches of crowded waiting rooms filled with frowning couples, the stirrups of overly chatty doctors (“You like prog rock?” asks one; cue him singing along to John Lodge’s “Say You Love Me” in the middle of a procedural), the sperm-clinic “viewing” cubicles where ejaculating into a cup might as well be climbing Mount Everest, the nerve-shredding home visits from adoption agency evaluators and the silent cab rides home when the latest attempt doesn’t take. We’re tucked in bed with them as they late-night surf a website — “eBay for ova” — involving possible third-party help. At one point, they’re asked about a past experience involving a surrogate mother in Arkansas — and we’re whisked into a flashback to see what happened there as well. Options seem exhausted; so, for that matter, do Richard and Rachel. And then his cell phone rings.
On the other end of the line: Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s aspiring-writer step-niece who’s just dropped out of Bard, much to the dismay of her mother (Molly Shannon). She wants to come live with her “Uncle Cool” and soak up the New York City vibe as a way to fuel her own art. Sadie is one of those idealistic twentysomething naif who speaks in academic-ese, has an ideological passion that laps her real-world experience and thinks nothing of giving compliments that are actually inadvertent insults. (She might have shared cigarettes with the lead in Kenneth Lonnergan’s Margaret in high school.) The young woman might also be a potential egg donor. In fact, Sadie can think of no better way to pay back her “cool parents” than to help them get the gift of life. She’s on board. Complications do, in fact, arise.
There’s something incredibly gratifying about watching Private Life not just as the story of these three — though it works better than decently as just that — but also a reminder of several things. Like, for example, back in the Nineties and early Aughts, there used to be many of these type of verbose, hyperliterate, actor-centric movies about actual human people at your local theaters, to the point where you thought they were breeding them in bulk in a farm upstate. (Actually, it was on a bucolic ranch in Park City.) They are now endangered species, and the appearance of a slight throwback like this can feel like a life preserver in a sea of I.P. And: When you have great actors, even characters who are most definitely types can come alive in the most beautiful of ways. No one does disappointment, or disappointment-fueled rage, better than Hahn; Giamatti knows how to weaponize his sad-sack act for pathos and laughs without losing the truth of who he’s playing; Carter is a serious where-did-she-come-from find. Plus: Just because a script is peppered with jokes involving Karl Ove Knausgård, Wendy Wasserstein, second-wave feminism, Yaddo and the former relevance of The Village Voice (too soon!) doesn’t make it groanworthy if it’s properly grounded.
And perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that Tamara Jenkins is a vital voice in a landscape that’s become increasingly, painfully unfriendly to what she does best. It’s been 20 years since Slums of Beverly Hills introduced her as someone who knows her way around an awkward, all-too-real moment and 11 years since The Savages, her extraordinary sibling story starring Laura Linney and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was released. Since then, well … to look at her depressingly scant IMDb page is to witness what’s probably a very familiar story to the filmmakers we used to praise to as being “indie.” (Say what you will about Netflix being the industry equivalent of a 10,000 lb. Hoover vacuum; hardly anyone else is putting stuff like this or Nicole Holofcener’s wonderful The Land of Steady Habits out anymore. The company has our gratitude.)
So yes, it might be churlish to say that Private Life is occasionally too much of a good thing, too much I’ve-had-a-decade-plus-of-artistic-expression-I’ve-needed-to-get-out shoved into a two-hour-plus sausage skin to keep it from being truly great. Endings pile up. Emotional beats are hit, then hammered, then finessed, then are run into the ground. There are moments when you begin to wonder whether a sequence involving a supporting character plucking hair from her chin at length or some of the side trips we take might add microscopically to the vibe yet subtract majorly from the momentum.
But what you ultimately get out this chronicle of people trying to get in the family way, and who end up experiencing their own sense of parenthood via their young guest/partner-in-crime, is enough to sustain you through the rougher patches. The film ends on a hopeful, somewhat ambiguous note. Even in this imperfect world, however, the sense of hope that this leads to more work for its creator is without any sense of ambiguity. Welcome back, Ms. Jenkins. You’ve been much missed.