Set amidst a deeply bourgeois milieu where children tend to be treated more like expensive fashion accessories than actual human beings, Tamara Jenkins’s wise, warm, and altogether lovely Private Life (her first feature in 11 years) introduces us to a middle-aged couple living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York’s Alphabet City. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a playwright, and Richard (Paul Giamatti, in his best role since 2004’s Sideways), a retired theater director, are trying desperately to have a baby in the face of mounting odds against them, and after years of failed fertility treatments. Feeling stuck and uncomfortably out-of-step with the times (it’s news to them that their life in a shabby Manhattan apartment has suddenly become a hipster millennial ideal of “authenticity”), they decide to reach out to their young, 25-year-old niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), to serve as a surrogate mother and egg donor in a last ditch attempt to have a baby — which results in a family meltdown, thanks to some strong opposition from Sadie’s helicopter mom, Cynthia (Molly Shannon).
Hahn, who’s always proved the moral center of Amazon’s original series Transparent, gives a remarkably lived-in performance here; as Rachel, the actress exudes a sense of weariness toward a world that has presented her with one very specific vision of happiness that she’s never been able to achieve
Jenkins has a strong ear for dialogue, and a keen understanding of familial discord (so memorably rendered in her 2007 film, The Savages), and she zeroes-in here, with a caustic sense of empathy, on her couple’s singular quest to bear a child of their own. Private Life examines the way in which this pursuit affects not only Rachel and Richard’s marriage, but even the most innocuous aspects of their lives. And it’s the smaller, more gently melancholy moments (like the scene in which the couple forget their annual Halloween tradition, and listen to two disappointed children from behind the door) that keep Jenkins’s film from turning into just another sad-sack chronicle of ‘white people problems.’ One can’t help but liken Private Life to the upper middle-class ennui found in Noah Baumbach’s films, but Jenkins’s vision is less acerbic and more downbeat — bitingly funny but never straying too far away from an underlying sadness. This is largely thanks to Hahn, who’s always proved the moral center of Amazon’s original series Transparent, and who gives a remarkably lived-in performance here; as Rachel, the actress exudes a sense of weariness toward a world that has presented her with one very specific vision of happiness that she’s never been able to achieve. Hahn’s performance, coupled with Jenkins’s remarkably controlled sense of emotional honesty, allow Private Life to become a compassionate and insightful film, one exploring the heartache that comes with the human proclivity for looking outward for happiness and validation. ‘There’s no place like home’ can be an inchoate message, but here it feels both disarmingly authentic and warmly humane.
You can currently stream Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life on Netflix.