Eleven years is too long a wait for the return of a filmmaker as talented as Tamara Jenkins. Her 2007 picture, The Savages, dazzled audiences and racked up a pair of Oscar nominations, so the decade-long wait between releases is, disheartening – to put it mildly. Thankfully, Netflix lured the writer/director back to work, and she isn’t the least bit rusty. Her new picture, Private Life, is as poignant, messy, and heartfelt as Jenkins’ fans could hope, with bits of awkward humour thrown in to keep things unpredictable.
Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard Grimes (Paul Giamatti) are a married couple in their forties who want nothing more than to have a child. Their preference is a natural birth, but Richard’s one testicle (and faulty plumbing) and Rachel’s age make it almost impossible. We meet them injecting hormones into Rachel’s body before making an expensive trip to an In Vitro Fertilization clinic. When the time comes for Richard to “make his contribution” he finds the clinic’s pornography selection isn’t working for him. Things only get worse from there. Private Life doesn’t tackle spirituality, but one gets the sense that if there is a god in the Grimes’ world, (s)he’s working against their pursuit of a child.
After exhausting every natural (and unnatural) option, the Grimes’ last shot is to buy another woman’s egg and inject it into Rachel. Choosing the right donor becomes an impossible ordeal until the perfect candidate walks right through their door. Richard’s flakey step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) asks to crash at their place while she figures things out. At twenty-five, her eggs are young and healthy. Helping out her favourite aunt and uncle would give her directionless life purpose; it’s a win-win. But Sadie’s cooperation doesn’t guarantee a successful pregnancy, and the trio, who are at different stages in life, must get onto the same page to make this baby happen.
Nobody plays a lovable loser like Giamatti. He is well-suited to play Richard, a man always chasing something that’s a smidge out of reach. Giamatti makes you feel the weight of each successive failure piling onto his weary soul. Hahn brings something else to the table. Rachel’s hormonal tempest has her cycling between feral and delicate. Together the couple gives off a thick stench of desperation that practically wafts off the screen. But amidst their constant setbacks, their bond also reveals itself as reassuring and sweet. It’s when the couple’s quest for a child leaves them depleted that their love and support resonate with the most intensity. Chasing odds as low as 4% doesn’t feel impossible when they pursue them together. And even if their journey doesn’t yield a baby, their shared struggle brings them closer together and reveals new shades and dimensions to their love for one another.
DP Christos Voudouris and production designer Ford Wheeler both do exceptional work. They provide an understated and considered window into the Grimes’ lives that feels anchored in the real world. But that doesn’t stop them from taking a bolder approach when the script calls for it. The Grimes’ rent-controlled apartment is as intimate (tight spaces and warm lighting) and sentimental (cluttered bookshelves and walls adorned with modest trinkets) as you expect from a pair of NY artists. And right outside their cozy living space is the cacophony of Manhattan, challenging their quiet existence.
When they enter the world of waiting rooms and doctor’s offices, the film takes on a chillier vibe. Voudouris captures IVF clinics with the cold, detached, and soulless vision of a Kubrick film. Fluorescent lights blast through long empty hallways, and couples blend together like soulless drones as they line waiting rooms. Jenkins never loses track of the idea that the Grimes are getting run through a profitable system, constructed to bleed desperate people dry.
Private Life feels a touch longer than it needs to be. There is a pointless subplot involving a romance between Sadie and one of Richard’s employees. And there are a few comedic segments that don’t feel tonally cohesive with the rest of the film. But these are minor gripes for a movie that gets by with rich characters, moving themes, and world-class performances. Each extra minute spent in the Grimes’ absorbing world is time to be thankful for.
- Release Date: 10/05/2018