Director: Tamara Jenkins
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch
Runtime: 123 Minutes
Private Life focuses on the Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a middle-aged married couple of writers living in New York, who are desperately trying to have a child by any means possible. If that sounds like the kind of pitch – concerning the East Coast elite type and middle-class white America extensively undergoing first world problems and well-worm familial frictions and dynamics – that would probably be found in a Noah Baumbach film, then you’re not far off but not entirely right either.
This is the first film in little over a decade from Tamara Jenkins, a supremely talented writer/director who follows in similar suit, but in executions isn’t as pared down as that comparable counterpart. Her films are intensely character-driven, with incident spiralling out of the drama of the private spaces of its protagonists being invaded or challenged by circumstances beyond their control.
In her last film (The Savages) it was death, here it is rather the absence or inability of its protagonists to create life despite their best efforts and the fact that they’re not getting any younger. Even for such a simple setup, it’s amazing how much muted yet emotionally distressing conflict Jenkins is able to mine from the situation, especially once their adoring niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) enters the frame as a potential egg donor.
Their dynamic feels familiar but added with the tensions of factors such as Sadie’s youth and general naiveté coming to Richard and Rachel’s quietly acknowledged attentions as well as the audiences. But it’s the scenes of just them bonding, talking and moving forward in their steps together that work the best, when Jenkins’ screenplay is allowed to dig into every crack in the foundations of their strange relationship.
Giamatti was always going to be great in this kind of role getting at least one great shouty moment out with a twist, and Carter builds on the promise of her performance in Netflix series Godless. But Kathryn Hahn taking centre stage is something worth seeing, and she’s probably giving the best performance of her entire career.
Jenkins’ direction is confident and playful throughout, but especially in the earlier scenes such as where they prepare for the adoption agent arrival and argue about the prominence of a large vagina featuring painting in their background, all the while Hahn is standing there with nothing but a small t-shirt on and bush entirely on display commenting on how much it will dominate her frame of vision.
If there feel like there are weaknesses, it’s in Richard’s brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and Charlie's wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon). Lynch and Shannon are perfect in their roles, but what initially seems like it could be one of the driving dramatic factors quickly takes a backseat, and a scene specifically involving Cynthia breaking down when her youngest announces otherwise happy news doesn’t really develop on from there.
Private Life has a modest starting point and maybe doesn’t quite work as well as Jenkins’ former work, but a lot can be forgiven when it comes to being in the company of characters that you enjoy, who are performed as excellently as they are here.