In 2018 quiet, modest family drama is rarely shown in theaters. Whereas Netflix has recently thrived by releasing movies of undeserved genres and modest budgets. By taking full advantage of the stories modern studios are leaving behind. Without Netflix, we might not know who Noah Centineo is (scratch that, Noah Centineo was inevitable).
Private Life is a grounded, quick-witted, heartfelt feature from Tamara Jenkins. Rachel Biegler (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard Grimes (Paul Giamatti) are a middle-aged couple living in a rent controlled, book-filled New York apartment. They’ve spent their lives dedicated to their art and to each other. When they’re ready to start a family, they try practically every method to conceive or adopt a child. A family member calls it the “by any means necessary” approach.
Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film, uses a deft touch to educate audiences, while not getting bogged down in medical terminology. Rachel and Richard have already attempted IUIs. The opening scene involves the couple awkwardly going through an IVF procedure. When not in hospital gowns, they’re at home furiously cleaning. In hopes of impressing a social worker, to get on adoption lists. Even after the couple already went through a heartbreaking adoption experience in the past.
Like several married couples, their agonizing experiences are handled with humor and honesty, created by Jenkins’ razor sharp dialogue and the astonishing performances of Giamatti and Hahn. The laughs lie in the uncomfortable pauses when Rachel and Richard have to reveal a private aspect of their situation, but they also lie in Rachel’s ability to freely announce to anyone within earshot that Richard has only one testicle.
No actress on the planet is better at portraying impatience than Kathryn Hahn. When her husband corrects her, she counters with the perfectly timed death glare. On one occasion when she allows herself to release a drop of her pent up emotion, she erupts with a hilarious, curse-ridden rant about keeping a painting of a naked woman on the wall.
Giamatti is the perfect scene partner for Hahn’s passionate performance. Their talent allows them to create a nuanced, ying and yang relationship that’s believable. When Richard is brash, Rachel is unsure, When she is irritated, he is full of insecurities.
After continued failure early in the movie, their peppy, prog-rock doctor recommends egg donation, causing the couple to enter the strange world Rachel describes as “the eBay for ova”. They turn to their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) as an alternative to asking a stranger. Sadie’s a recent college dropout with cutting remarks and the youthful obliviousness to not realize whom those remarks are addressing. Rachel and Richard treat her with more patience and less judgement than her own parents, played by John Carroll Lynch and a scene-stealing Molly Shannon.
Sadie decides to live in the city with her relatives. Relatives through marriage, not blood, as the movie makes sure to point out. It provides the perfect amount of brazenness to shake up the stagnancy in Rachel and Richard’s marriage. This allows their relationship to evolve. Though not without fiery arguments of why the couple waited this long to start a family.
Jenkins does her best writing over this topic. Of how Rachel and Richard directly and indirectly discuss “whose fault it is” for their fertility issues. Throughout the film they are dancing between two feelings: their determination to stay together and the temptation to blame one another for their misfortunes. Jenkins might just be a dark horse for a screenwriting nomination, this year.
The three main characters are artists who love talking about art. Their literary references and playwright shout outs might not be for all audiences. Yet Hahn and Giamatti are able to carry the film on their palpable chemistry and sentimental conversations. Private Life is an unassuming film. Especially when contrasted with the typical spat of theatrical releases. In it, Netflix has released one of the funniest, most poignant hidden gems of the year.