Private Life

Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life offers a tender, lively look into one couple’s journey through the trials of conceiving a child. Rachel, (Kathryn Hahn) a writer who spent the majority of her fertile prime focusing on her career, and Richard (Paul Giamatti), a former playwright, face a crisis of age as they struggle to have a child. They bounce between fertility treatments like speed-dating, so much that the disappointment becomes routine. The movie begins with the arrival of Sadie, Richard’s “step-niece,” and the couples’ attempt to recruit her as a participant in their IVF trial. Through the framework of Rachel and Richard’s tumultuous attempts to have a child lies desire. The desire to love and be loved, the desire to succeed, and the desire to return to normal all shape Jenkins’ into a narrative that reminds the viewer what it’s like to feel caught between absurdity and hopelessness.

Both characters face professional failure. They are relics of a New York that is often overplayed and overhyped: a New York where artists make ends meet and are able to laugh off money troubles with the success of a new script or feature in a literary magazine. Rachel and Richard live on the other side of the writer’s stereotype; both fight to maintain a career and find fulfillment. In one scene, they meet with friends to laugh about their collective struggles and seek peace in an apartment that was supposed to be temporary—the place they would stay until their next big break. “I’m 47,” states Richard, dropping his casual manner and leaving the scene as an ominous reminder of time passing the couple by. The introduction of Sadie (Kayli Carter), a college-dropout writer trying to emulate the New York lifestyle of the couple’s past, only serves to further enhance the film’s bittersweet meditation on expectation. Jenkins humanizes the stereotypes she plays upon, capitalizing on the familiarity of midlife mediocrity by bringing her characters through scenes that highlight their own path to self awareness.

It is in these scenes that Jenkins’ characters find their voice. They laugh openly and often, only to be met with disappointment. The camera hovers for just a second too long on their expression so we can see the moment of realization in Hahn and Giamatti’s performances. The juxtaposition of cold medical reality with Rachel and Richard’s warm, candid approach towards their situation provides fodder for Jenkins to develop a balance between drama and comedy. We are drawn into Rachel and Richard’s longing by the charisma of an honest portrayal of failure as we stumble with them through the awkwardness of reproduction. We watch Richard stab Rachel in the upper thigh with hormones, a social worker sitting in front of the couples’ painting of a vagina as they attempt to convince her to let them adopt, and Richard facing semen “blockage” while the garish sounds of porn play in the background of an artificial insemination clinic. Both characters are aware of how absurd their situation is, but they continue to pursue their goal with unwavering ferocity.

Private Life is a heartwarming, at times heartbreaking, work that succeeds in uniting stereotypes, tropes, and genres to remind viewers of the power in “dramedy.” Private Life is a true crossover of emotions that reminds viewers of the intimacy between art and onlooker. We are given the privilege of accompanying Rachel and Richard through the weird, frustrating trials of fertility treatment, laughing along with their frank self-awareness and feeling every stab of reality as they navigate the trials of age, love, and dreams.