By: Steve Pulaski
Richard and Rachel (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) are a middle-aged couple living in New York. He is a former playwright who has now gone into business selling pickles. She is a writer working to get her book published after years of rewrites and editing. Both of their preoccupations have made them delay trying to have a child up until recently. Over the last several months, they've spent what is assumed to be no small amount of money trying to conceive a child. Fertility clinics and adoption agencies prove hopeless dead-ends for the couple as Rachel struggles with daily hormone injections and Richard comes to find out his sperm is clogged. The doctor equates it to the same thing that happens if a soda machine's "syrup" hose is clogged. They're basically the same thing. "All you're getting is seltzer," the doctor adds.
Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter), the stepdaughter of Richard's brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon), a wayward, soul-searching product of the millennial generation, who is on thin ice with her parents, particularly her mother, about her shaky future. Sadie knows she wants to be a writer, but her parents don't believe she's disciplined enough to earn a living off of that aspiration. It's no surprise she feels more at-home with Richard and Rachel given their backgrounds. This makes the couple's shocking proposition of having her donate some of her eggs to Rachel as a means of getting them to conceive a child one considerably less awkward, but still — nonetheless — awkward. Sadie is on-board with wanting to help her step-aunt and uncle, but Cynthia's reservations coupled with serious concerns regarding the health consequences make the process tough on the entire family.
Such is the dilemma of Private Life, the year's finest comedy-drama thus far and one of the most outstanding films of the year by any measure. It's no wonder it comes from writer/director Tamara Jenkins, whose last film was the Philip Seymour Hoffman drama The Savages all the way back in 2007. In an effort to make another deeply moving yet often uproariously funny picture, Jenkins so intelligently infuses this story with prickly humor, raw drama, and themes that, without the respective weight and emotional depth, would've rendered this a frothy, feel-good picture. Instead, we get something much more earnest and a lot more entertaining.
Let's start with Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, who both reach new career heights with this film. Giamatti has long maintained a terrific brand of crossing dead-pan comedy with a cynical, gloomy attitude, and those two things are magnified thanks to Jenkins' writing. A plethora of hilarious scenes see Giamatti's Richard at the center, such as when he awkwardly responds to a vulgar and explicit pornographic clip which plays as he is trying to donate sperm. Then there's a scene when he storms back into a clinic after Sadie has been insulted by the doctor that recalls the response of Giamatti's Miles in Sideways upon hearing that his book wasn't going to be published yet again. Through it all, Giamatti is not only a good sport — given he's a tad bit of a punching bag here — but shows yet again how underrated and talented he is at playing someone who is funny in an off-script way yet bleak at the same time.
Hahn, on the other hand, is just as good with her dramatic bits. She plays someone who just looks emotionally and physically exhausted, yet determined to have a child. The way Private Life handles the idea of middle-age ennui and personal failures serving as the primary motivations for an otherwise pragmatic and rational couple to make the blind leap into parenthood is not only rich but endlessly compelling. Think about it: Richard and Rachel have likely wracked up thousands of dollars in medical expenses alone in trying to conceive. Don't even factor in the adoption agency fees, pregnancy tests, and other miscellaneous expenses, and they have likely put a dent in their futures, which will already take a greater hit if they bring a child into this world. Jenkins shows the often lack of forward-thinking couples have when struggling to have a baby; the act becomes far less cute and romantic and more selfish as the couple becomes increasingly combative with nature's ways.
Sure, you can argue characters like Richard and Rachel might not exist down to the nitty-gritty details. They're far too eloquent, referencing literature and the arts in the middle of hasty arguments, and sometimes feel as if they've been transported from a Noah Baumbach film (this would make a great double feature with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) — also on Netflix). But beyond their exaggerated privilege are two very vulnerable people with believable shortcomings as individuals who have become selfishly consumed by one of the most selfless acts in which a human being can partake. Furthermore, even when we see Jenkins blatantly pull punches and make fun of these characters, she never undercuts the humanity of them nor makes them into unidentifiable, unsympathetic caricatures — a problem present even in the best Baumbach films. She's far too skilled to let that happen.
And the title of the film? A bold statement on a brand new world. Consider how desperately little is private with Richard and Rachel's circumstances. They have arguments on the busy sidewalks of New York, they rush to and from the hospital in taxis, they spend their days vocalizing their concerns and flaws in waiting rooms, coffee-shops, and restaurants (take note of how Jenkins likes to linger on the other souls in any given space), and even their apartment is offset by loud, unruly neighbors upstairs. The vertical city brings little privacy to the lives of its inhabitants, and not unlike the films of Paul Mazursky (particularly the terrific Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), the drama of the bedroom is brought into the foreground with this film. It's a little thing I like to call, "what I do in my free-time is all of your business."
What a sincere and immaculately written film this is. It's a blessing to see it make its debut on Netflix as opposed to a limited theatrical release, where films like Venom, A Star is Born, and the umpteenth Halloween would've swallowed it alive. Streaming services were made with convenience and easy access to entertainment and mind, but also as an outlet for films just like Tamara Jenkins' Private Life. Start streaming, folks.