It speaks to the complexity of Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, which recently became available for streaming on Netflix, that even its title can be read multiple ways. On the one hand, the film is indeed about private life: the plot centers on a middle-aged couple (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) as they try to have a child, exploring the options of in vitro fertilization, adoption, and egg donation. On the other, the title is deeply ironic; the film is also about a crisis in American public life, namely our culture’s suppression of intellectualism and the arts. Jenkins weaves her social concerns so gracefully into her storytelling that the title’s second meaning barely registers until after the movie ends. As in her previous directorial efforts, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and The Savages (2007), Jenkins displays such a gift for creating three-dimensional personages that the film succeeds smashingly as a character study. Yet her interest in character isn’t limited to psychology; she also wants to consider how her subjects fit into a larger social system, and it’s this aspect of her talent that makes Private Life such an affecting—and ultimately devastating—work.
It’s also quite funny. Jenkins tends to deliver her observations with a satirical tinge, and she has a knack for writing sharp one-liners as well. The movie’s first extended sequence, set at an in vitro fertilization clinic, is frequently riotous, as Richard (Giamatti) and Rachel (Hahn) find themselves at the mercy of one comically fatuous medical professional after another. The specialist assigned to their case, Dr. Dordick (Denis O’Hare), is a marvelous caricature of unwitting condescension, recalling the cringe-inducing doctors of the Elaine May-scripted classic Such Good Friends (1971). After a botched IVF, Dordick explains to the couple that Richard is having trouble producing sperm, awkwardly comparing his reproductive system to a soda fountain. He suggests that they visit yet another specialist, who charges $10,000 for a consultation, so they can address the issue.
Strapped for cash, Richard calls up his brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) to ask for money, and following their conversation, Jenkins introduces the film’s third major character. Charlie’s wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), takes a call from Sadie (Kayli Carter), her 25-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Sadie is in the middle of a crisis of her own—she’s struggling to finish her creative writing degree at Bard College and is generally unsure of how she wants to proceed with her life. (“Finishing college at 25 isn’t exactly an achievement—it’s damage control!” the high-strung Cynthia shouts, hinting at years of contention between the two women.) Without asking her parents for their input, Sadie declares that she’ll go to Manhattan and crash with Richard and Rachel, with whom she’s always been close, until she can get her act together. A few weeks later, she acts on her plan, moving in with the beleaguered, albeit still affectionate, couple.
Sadie’s arrival in New York City comes after Dr. Dordick suggests that Richard and Rachel consider egg donation as a solution to their problem. The two had ruled it out some time before (Rachel compares it, not unreasonably, to science fiction), though they begin to take it seriously after a strained meeting with an adoption agent. The narrative strands come together so neatly that one can easily guess where the story will go from here: Richard and Rachel will ask Sadie to donate some of her oocytes and the three will develop into a postmodern family unit. This does happen, and fairly quickly at that; Jenkins is too sophisticated a filmmaker to draw out needless suspense, and besides she’s less interested in plotting than in exploring the nuances of relationships. In her affection for the couple and her emotional dependence on them, Sadie suggests the daughter Richard and Rachel never had; at the same time, she’s something of a stranger in their world, often inadvertently hurting the couple’s feelings with observations about their lifestyle. (“Look at us,” she says one morning over a relaxed breakfast in the couple’s smallish East Village kitchen. “We’re like an ad for assholes.”)
The young woman’s most stinging comments concern Richard and Rachel’s past. Shortly after coming to Manhattan, Sadie goes off on her classmates at Bard, mocking their artistic aspirations by citing how hard it was for her step-uncle and aunt to make a living as theater artists. It’s only in this scene that Jenkins reveals that the couple used to run an experimental theater company and that they had to shut it down because it didn’t make any money—adding insult to injury, their former theater space is now home to a Citibank. While Rachel has found some success as a novelist, Richard has given up on the arts, going into business with an organic pickle company. (The name of his company, “The Pickle Guy,” doubles as a comic allusion to his difficulties with potency.) Sadie’s fixation on Richard and Rachel’s background in theater makes one realize how little they talk about art at all, despite living in a bohemian milieu. It’s as though they’re living in hiding.
Jenkins doesn’t devote much time to the couple’s past, nor does she have to—the humiliations Richard and Rachel suffer at present speaks to their fall from social significance. Yet the knowledge of their fall informs Private Life, adding metaphorical heft to the primary narrative. The couple’s inability to have a child mirrors their inability to pass something down, on a cultural level, to future generations, and this sense of futility makes them bittersweet, if not tragic figures. Giamatti and Hahn convey the characters’ frustration poignantly by refusing to make it the defining trait of their performances. They seem defeated from the start of the film—even their arguments quickly evaporate into passive-aggressive grumbling—yet their perseverance can be moving; ditto the way they respond to situations with self-effacing wit.
Consider an early scene where Richard and Rachel tell their adoption agent about having been scammed by a potential surrogate mother they met online, a charismatic young woman who lied about being pregnant in order to get two strangers’ attention. This episode, which Jenkins presents in a series of flashbacks, would work as a stand-alone short film. Brilliantly edited and full of observant details, the passage explores various social ills of the Internet age—atomization, the failure to make meaningful interpersonal connection, the weird fluidity between the public and private—better than films that devote their entire running times to the issue. It concludes (like Private Life itself) with the couple pushing on, considering further options for how they might realize their dream of having progeny.
It feels sadly appropriate that Chicagoans will be seeing Private Life in solitary environments, as Netflix isn’t releasing the film theatrically here. The company’s model of premiering feature films online speaks to our culture’s growing tendency to make art a private experience, a trend that goes hand in hand with the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts and arts education in public schools. Jenkins clearly sees the situation as bleak—her film has a pointedly chilly aesthetic, and she tends to make her characters seem isolated even when they’re sitting among other people. Even when Sadie gets invited to the arts colony Yaddo late in the film, the development feels vaguely melancholy; Jenkins presents the colony like a sanatorium for people with the disease of believing that art still matters in America. Still, Sadie’s ebullient personality shines through the darkness of Private Life, suggesting that her qualities as an individual—her wit, her compassion, and above all her creativity—might carry over to the public sphere. v