Private Life - Review

A late-year masterpiece focusing on one of Kathryn Hahn’s best performances.

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Private Life is one of those films that feels like if the writer for Juno wrote a movie for adults. That actually happened this year, in the Jason Reitman film written by Diablo Cody, Tully. It updated some of the themes of those teen-angst films for 30-40 year olds, stricken by the loss of their innocence and ever present youth. A film like Juno or 500 Days of Summer wouldn’t appeal to an older person now, at least not as much as a film like Tully or Private Life. They’re not real life, just fantasies. This film, from writer director Tamara Jenkins, is a nosedive into the gloriously complicated and desperate lives of a couple trying to get pregnant. The couple, played by Jenkins favorite Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, are so desperate that they resort to asking their step-niece Sadie if she would donate her eggs. Several failed IVFs have pushed them to this point, and the film delights in observing their misery and ecstasy throughout the process. It’s a meditative and thorough film, leaving almost no corner unexplored and no thought unfinished.

The script dodges carefully between comedy and drama, keeping the film above water at all times rather than needlessly divide it in half based on one defining moment. That moment, when the couple realize their efforts with Sadie are in vain, is a crushing one, and Jenkins knows it. She’s been telling us the entire time that Rachel and Richard cannot get pregnant, that even their boldest and most expensive efforts yield futile results, but of course we must hope at the prospect of a new solution. Had the IVF succeeded, Sadie may have come closer to realizing her potential, and Richard and Rachel would finally be able to give it a rest. Too simple a solution, and much too contrary to what Jenkins is trying to get across here. When Sadie is in the hospital, her fate unsure, the arrival of her parents is sickening. Not because they are concerned, but because you know that in her mother’s mind, the phrase “I told you so” is lurking. She said it before, so why wouldn’t she be thinking it? What is already an uncomfortable scene is made more so by this mother-daughter relationship, one Jenkins tells through two different actresses. Kathryn Hahn’s Rachel is artsy, lives in New York, and, the crucial factor, not Sadie’s mom. Cynthia, played by Molly Shannon, is, and can be controlling, judgemental, even ruthless. No wonder Sadie wants to be with Richard and Rachel: they are everything Cynthia is not, and above all, interested in her. Sadie’s journey of self discovery is one of the most interesting stories Private Life tells, and when Richard and Rachel offer to read her fiction, you can feel the warmth in the room. They are tender, loving, but entirely problematic. Family dramas often take two contrasting couples and put them at odds, one being the strict, right ones, the others the failures with appearance of cool; Private Life knows that it’s never that simple, especially in a family, and that sometimes one side is right, and sometimes the other side is. Favour is constantly shifting, which makes watching Sadie’s perception of Richard and Rachel change all the more rewarding.

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Kathryn Hahn is top notch here. Her cool and collected appearance is constantly fighting with her insecurities, in a story so touchy and uncomfortable it feels as if she might explode in the middle of a scene. Rachel’s intellect is easy to detect in Hahn’s sharp, defined features that have done her wonders in confident and self-assured roles, but here she covers them with jackets, cardigans, and doubt. She flies from confident and self assured around Sadie to loose and uncontrollable another time. It’s easy to tell in a hilarious conversation between Richard and Rachel about a graphic painting on their wall that the various fertility treatments are taking a toll on her, and that’s where Giamatti comes in. More than I expected, he plays the concerned and defensive husband gone dormant, satisfied to sit back and rely on the strength of others to get him out of bed each day. But when Sadie comes into the mix and rattles his cage, his machismo is awakened. By the time he knocks down a rack of fliers at a fertility clinic, Richard has emerged fully from his vacancy, and from then on takes charge of his life with an impressive level of clarity from Giamatti. This is the most vulnerable character he’s played in years, but it’s still full of abrasive, maniacal moments, albeit on a smaller scale than a film like Love & Mercy. He’s come out of his shell much too late, but is determined nonetheless to make his actions count. Alongside the immensely talented and dynamic Kathryn Hahn, he can do no wrong. They end where they began, anxiously awaiting a meeting at a diner. Richard gets up and sits next to Rachel, and closes her hand around his. The credits roll as the two wait for a meeting that may or may not come, and I couldn’t help but think of the ending of Inception. All the craziness and tears and lessons of the film have led to this moment, and they may all be in vain, but that’s not why you watch it.