Private Life (United States, 2018)

October 10, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Private Life Poster

In Private Life, writer/director Tamara Jenkins speaks as if from experience, capturing not only the precise technical details of her subject but accurately representing the roller coaster that is IVF. For those who haven’t gone through the process, it can be difficult conveying all the ups and downs - the tragicomedy of shots, hormones, blood tests, and procedures, and the willingness to spend extraordinary amounts of financial and emotional currency on a gamble with a poor success rate. When movies address fertility problems – something they rarely do in the first place – it’s usually with something less than the honesty on display in Private Life. This movie doesn’t use IVF as a punch-line or a facile plot device to facilitate a happy ending. If Jenkins hasn’t gone through this herself, she has done an expert job of researching the plight of those who have and presenting their situation with a great deal of sympathy.

Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play Richard Grimes and Rachel Biegler, the tortured couple. Unable to conceive children the old-fashioned way, they first tried the minimally invasive IUI (Intrauterine insemination) method before graduating to attempts at adoption and IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), two approaches they are pursuing (without much success) in concert. When their IVF cycle fails, resulting in thousands of wasted dollars and much turmoil, they opt for another approach: abandoning Rachel’s 40-plus year old eggs for those of a younger doner. After examining numerous profiles of strangers, they settle on someone closer to home: their niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), who is staying with them during a “break” from college and expresses a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help her favorite (step) uncle and aunt.

The film’s sardonic tone is a part of its success. Private Life doesn’t overreach for laughs and there are times when tears are more appropriate. Nevertheless, there’s an undercurrent of mordant humor throughout. Jenkins is careful never to laugh at the characters; instead, she reserves the comedic aspects for the inherent absurdities and indignities of their situation. Rarely has a film been so honest about the difficulties of getting pregnant for a select group of unlucky couples.

Giamatti and Hahn are perfect choices for the leads. Both exhibit an ordinariness that engages our empathy. They are comfortable with the film’s drama while showing a deft touch for the low-key comedy. Richard and Rachel are people we know: friends, neighbors, family members, us. We follow them through the tribulations of infertility, from the mundane everyday minutia of life (Hahn has a scene that recalls the Julianne Moore eye-opener in Short Cuts) to the marital friction and recriminations that bubble to the surface. Many marriages can’t survive the loss of a child; what about the loss of hope of conceiving one? Relative newcomer Kayli Carter gives a breakout turn as the young woman who sees the donation of her eggs as a way to make a difference. For her, the act is empowering even though Richard and Rachel have their own private doubts about its appropriateness – especially when Sadie’s mother (Molly Shannon) comes out against her daughter’s choice.

Private Life doesn’t promise big laughs, quick fixes, or a conventionally happy Hollywood ending. The focus is less on narrative than on character and relationship-building, although we quickly become invested in Richard and Rachel’s struggle and the question of whether they will achieve their dream. A Giamatti monologue expresses what many couples undergoing IVF feel: at some point, regardless of the success or failure of the process, there needs to be an end. Only then can life progress. The movie concludes in a moment of perfect ambiguity. Some will see it as hopeful; others will perceive it to be otherwise. Regardless, it encapsulates the uncertainty that accompanies children, whether in their rearing, birth, or even conception.

Jenkins has produced a small gem – an unassuming and surprisingly profound motion picture that touches on primal motivations and instincts. Great performances seal the deal and make the characters real. Oddly, Netflix has done little to promote what is easily one of their three or four best “original productions” to date. It deserves greater exposure because, for those who care about human motion pictures, it’s better than a lot of what’s currently in theaters.

Private Life (United States, 2018)

Director: Tamara Jenkins
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Denis O’Hare
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Cinematography: Christos Voudouris
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2018
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2018-10-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1