Film Review: Private Life

Like Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins is a sharp and savvy delineator of the urban human condition, especially as it pertains to women, and this baby-minded farce is an overdue and welcome directorial comeback.
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Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) want to have a child in the worst way, and after trying seemingly every possible method, from adoption to hormone injections to searching for the right egg donor, they’re almost like veterans of the Baby Wars, although they mostly battle each other—which is seriously threatening their marriage.

That’s the premise of Tamara Jenkins’ ingratiating and mordantly funny new film Private Life, her first since The Savages in 2007, wherein she focused on another common, difficult issue facing still young-ish adults today of a certain class and mindset: what to do about a deteriorating parent. The incredible amounts of energy, angst, time and money spent to hear the patter of little feet is perhaps something she has gone through herself, for even the most absurd fillips in her script ring on the true side. She wrings all kinds of absurdist humor out of the costly quest for fertility endured by the amusingly forlorn, bleakly submissive group of would-be parents with whom Richard and Rachel find themselves trapped. Broadway veteran Denis O’Hare has himself a blast, playing their doctor as an impish mix of hippie and Hammer horror. While Jenkins’ film may lack a certain scope, being so very much concerned with two people procreating in the midst of a very attractive, if mostly white, semi-Bohemian, rent-controlled East Village lifestyle, the pungent satire (with just enough heart) makes for some very welcome, provocatively diverting fare.

Jenkins has been blessed by a wondrously savvy cast, who skillfully humanize what might have seemed an overtly snide hate letter to frantic yuppies, intent on leaving the largest carbon footprint they can on an already squeezed-dry planet. Hahn, the veritable Queen of Wry, uses that gift, as well as her skeptical eyes and thin, wide line of a mouth—which often transform into beauty—to create a bracingly authentic portrait of the kind of New York woman we all know, independent, super-smart and rather frustrated precisely because of the aforementioned first two qualities. Giamatti plays the equally intelligent but more solid, grounded member of the relationship, like a salt-of-the-earth Spencer Tracy type to her nervously neurotic Hepburn, but mercifully without Tracy’s patented avuncular and superior condescension.

Molly Shannon—always good to see—and Kayli Carter are also very effective as the couple’s sister-in-law and her daughter, their niece, the former too jaded and the latter too innocent, perhaps, for the right kind of healthy involvement in our protagonists’ quest for an egg donor.