I haven’t dug into any interviews with Tamara Jenkins to learn the insider story of why over a decade passed between her last film and her latest, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the reason serves as narrative fuel for that new cinematic offering. It’s not simply that Jenkins prior two features — Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — had the unmistakable weight of autobiography to them. Private Life, the new film from Jenkins, has the rawness of brutal, brave truth. Someone still could have drawn such a story purely from their imagination, but the details sting with authority that suggests rueful reminiscing is the more likely source.
Private Life focuses on Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), married New Yorkers who have spent years trying to conceive a baby. The film begins with them taking what appear to be weary, final swings at the problem, like a battered boxer in the late rounds of bout that has long been lost. Nearly everything has already been tried. Even adoption proved to be such an arduous process that they’ve circled back to medically enhanced methods, such as in vitro fertilization, which adds a whole other set of tasks to their routine. The relationship is clearly buckling, stressed beyond capacity by the fact that their shared identity is one of futility.
Matters are further complicated by the arrival of their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who’s taken a sudden leave of absence from college. She is taking respite with her cool city relatives in part because they move in the lower tier bohemian artist circles Sadie sees as a hopeful destination, but also because of the emotional skirmishes she gets into with her own mother (Molly Shannon). Sadie’s presence gives Rachel and Richard a diversion from their interpersonal struggles, simply by providing another person to focus on in their cramped apartment. But she may also provide some assistance with the larger problem, as the couple has reached the point where the possibility of an egg donor has been broached.
Jenkins tilts the material towards wry comedy, albeit of the gut-punch variety. Of course, her lead performers are particularly skilled at maneuvering the narrow pathways between humor and pathos. Hahn is uniquely capable of keeping brash expressiveness firmly tethered to intricate characterizations, and Giamatti’s gift for the slow burn has evolved to a point at which it’s really more of a pilot light dimming to infinity. They give dignity to every tremor of emotion in the roles, showing how these people make their way, sometimes delicately, sometimes bravely, sometimes humbled by the inescapable grind of defeat.
Jenkins assembles the film with a keener eye than I recall from previous films. She crafts visuals that tell compelling stories all on their own and generally assembles the film with the spartan certainty of Woody Allen in his cinematic prime. These qualities also give Private Life a disarming lightness that cuts across the darker subject matter. It has the feel of something that came easily, which isn’t meant to diminish the evident work that went into it. Quite the contrary, a film that can be pointed, precise, and loose all at once is likely the product of a director who knows without a doubt what they want to do, what they are ready to convey. It’s as if Jenkins spent those many years between films envisioning Private Life to the seams in the corners, and only when it was fully formed did she gift it to the rest of us. It should be received with the deepest gratitude.