Both Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are what I like to call great real-life actors. They can do amazing work in the extremes of drama and comedy, but their best performances come from when they have material with a tone somewhere in the middle — a tone that matches that of real life. They have a way about them that perfectly taps into the emotional experience of everyday existence. It’s a shared strength that makes them natural collaborators, and Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, their first project together, very much proves that. It’s a movie that essentially puts itself on the back of its leads, and it’s Giamatti and Hahn’s turns that make this film a winner.
We only get a Tamara Jenkins film every decade or so (with Private Life‘s predecessor being 2007’s The Savages, which itself followed 1998’s Slums Of Beverly Hills), and this time out she is telling the story of Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), an upper middle class New York couple trying everything they can to get pregnant. We enter their story as she is in the midst of hormone treatments, preparing for the retrieval stage of an expensive in vitro fertilization process, but hopes are not high, and it feels like disappointment is constantly lingering around the corner. Support is minimal from extended family — with Richard’s brother, Charlie (John Carol Lynch), berated by his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), for loaning them money — and they are at a point where they are essentially gamblers suffering from the sunk cost fallacy.
Time isn’t on the couple’s side, but their desire to have a child remains strong. Having been burned by the surrogate process, they have to start considering other options, such as egg donation, though the thought of introducing a stranger’s DNA into the mix isn’t viewed as optimal. Thankfully, their outlook brightens with the arrival of Sadie (Kayli Carter), Cynthia’s college-aged daughter from a previous marriage who has sincere admiration for Rachel and Richard. Together they work towards bringing a new life into the world — though, of course, it all leads to new kinds of drama.
With a fantastic original script from Tamara Jenkins, Private Life takes its characters through all the true-to-life heartache and high emotions that come with late-in-life pregnancy, and above all else just feels honest. The journey of Rachel’s fortitude, fear, frustration and faith through the ups and downs is brutal at times and hilarious at others — shining thanks to Kathryn Hahn’s wonderfully blunt comedic sensibilities. It’s perfectly matched with Richard’s matched feelings, which also come with a side dose of exhaustion and helplessness that blends with Paul Giamatti’s curmudgeon style. It’s fascinating to watch them go through all of the trials and tribulations involved. You’re engaged and rooting for the best at every turn, and you sympathize with them in them in their darkest moments. They’re roles that need the precise presences of Hahn and Giamatti, and they bring their best to the parts.
What additionally makes Private Life refreshing is simply the perspective it takes with the story its telling — one that we don’t really see explored often in film. There are countless examples of movies and television shows that follow the journey of a pregnant woman, but this is a whole different experience, which is completely free of tropes, and true to its title takes you behind the curtain and leaves no stone unturned. Even if you don’t fully engage with Richard and Rachel and what they are going through as characters, at the very least it’s a surprisingly educational experience just understanding what’s involved for 40-plus adults who want to start families.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait until 2028 before Tamara Jenkins is ready to deliver her next feature, because 20 years after her auspicious debut, her voice is as strong as ever — and she continues to work with the best of the best talent. In short, Private Life is the result when filmmakers and actors do what they do best, and it’s a dramatic, funny, affecting ride.