Private Life (2018)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Film-school students (or at least, aspiring screenwriters) could learn the “write-what-you-know” methods simply from watching Tamara Jenkins’ personal comedy-drama “Private Life.” I’m assuming everything the characters are undergoing/discussing in the film is based on personal experience. (After all, this is only Jenkins’ third film in 20 years and her first since 2007’s “The Savages.” Why come back for a project about a topic she wouldn’t know anything about?) I’ve seen this film five times since its release on Netflix a few months ago, and each time I see it, I’m fascinated by the amount of technical detail brought into the subject of IVF—or rather, the subject of the ups and downs of IVF. Probably because it’s barely even touched upon in any film I can think of.

“Private Life” focuses on a middle-aged married couple, Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who desperately want to have a child. They try pretty much everything they can think of, including artificial insemination, vitro fertilisation, and other expensive methods they come across, just to reassure themselves that they’re trying to have a child by any means necessary. They even tried adoption at one point, only to be sadly let down by an out-of-town pregnant teenager who stopped contacting them after numerous FaceTime chats. They try everything they can think of, and this is where the comedy and drama blend wonderfully—because it’s played so realistically with two appealing, good-natured people, you laugh because you find ways to relate to their situation.

If Jenkins herself hasn’t gone through any of the things Richard and Rachel have tried (though I’m assume she relates to it one way or another), then she’s clearly done her research in exploring the plight real-life couples go through in this situation. The way she portrays it in the film generates sympathy.

Anyway, Richard and Rachel are visited by their 25-year-old niece, Sadie (wonderfully played by Kayli Carter with a neat blend of perkiness and confusion). She’s a college-writing student who gets to finish the program in absentia, and she gets to stay with Richard and Rachel, with whom she’s very close. They decide to ask Sadie for her eggs, as they’ve also decided to inseminate Rachel with a donor egg. She agrees, which leads to yet another tough process on the road to hopefully resulting in a child Richard and Rachel can call their own, even though the sometimes-bright, otherwise-naive-and-immature Sadie is already becoming their surrogate daughter as time goes by.

At two hours and four minutes, the film moves slowly, which for most quiet character pieces/slices of life can lead to moments of sagging that probably could have been trimmed or edited out. But to be fair, I think that’s an effective way for Jenkins to tell her audience to pay close attention to what these characters are doing, notice their plight, and learn some new things about something that some people may see as an easy process (which now I know it’s definitely not). I appreciate that.

Part of the film’s success, aside from the utterly brilliant acting from all three principals (and supporting actors such as Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch as Sadie’s unsure parents—this is the best film work I’ve ever seen from Shannon), is the tone. As with Jenkins’ previous film, “The Savages,” “Private Life” is told with a sardonic tone that is just right for the material. Jenkins wants us to feel for the characters, and she knows the best way to reach the audience is with comedy. But most importantly, the comedy is only effective if Jenkins keeps it at a grounded level—this way, we’re not laughing at the characters so much as laughing because we know what these numerous absurdities and setbacks feel like in any pressing scenario. (Though, a few tears are more appropriate than laughs.)

Whatever you think happens in “Private Life” is only because you’ve seen so many films that you think you can expect anything conventional. But you’d be wrong—the story is not told in a conventional sense in which it’s easy to figure the outcome by the final act. That was another pleasant surprise about the film: the final act is extraordinary in the way it tells us that whatever end may occur in this long, hard process, what’s more important is how these people react to it and move on in life. Speaking of which, how does “Private Life” end? On a hopeful note? On a bitter note? It’s for us to decide. I really like this film, and I look forward to Jenkins’ next film in the future.

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