Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), the beleaguered bohemian-geek couple at the center of “Private Life,” have been trying, through fertility treatments, to get pregnant for years. The movie, written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, is a comedy of fragile hopes and frayed nerves: the story of how these two attempt to have a child by any means necessary — a goal that should bring them together, but instead, after too much failure, it’s tearing them apart. Jenkins isn’t shy about milking the situation for laughs. The film opens with Richard injecting hormones into Rachel’s haunch, a painful procedure that provokes the first of many droll arguments. The two then watch their lives transformed into a hapless experiment that never ends (and never seems to work).
It’s a set-up that provokes a comic array of intrusive humiliations, though each one hangs on the slim possibility of transcendence. The jaunty physician who plays prog-rock as he brings a rubber syringe up to Rachel’s uterus. The sudden news that Richard, who has only one testicle, is suffering from a case of “blocked” sperm. The hilariously obscene and hostile tantrum that Rachel throws about all the airs they’ll have to put on when they meet with the woman from an adoption agency. (The two desperately want to have a child biologically, but are covering all their bets.)
Most of this stuff is sharply, at times squeamishly, funny, though the laughter also catches in our throats, since “Private Life” is built around a core of heartbreak. The movie is touching and bittersweet; in its way, it’s structured as an adventure that draws the audience right into the center of Rachel and Richard’s obsession. Yet you may wish Tamara Jenkins had found a way to give the material more of a dramatic lift.
This is first film Jenkins has made since “The Savages” (2007), that marvelous comedy that teamed Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as neurotic adult siblings trying to figure out a way to care for their dementia-afflicted father. Jenkins found her full voice as a filmmaker in “The Savages,” and “Private Life” is made in the same anxious spirit of fast-talking, throttled humanity. Yet it doesn’t give you the same buzz; it’s witty and moving but a touch repetitive, and it goes on for too long. That said, Jenkins has made the most intimate comedy imaginable about the fertility blues. “Private Life” hits some delicate nerves, and heals a few of them too.
It is often said that the happiest couples are the ones who know how to fight. Rachel and Richard are stuck, for the moment, on the opposite shore from happiness, but they genuinely love each other, and Hahn and Giamatti show you how their fighting is part of that. When the possibility is raised that Rachel would have a better chance of getting pregnant if she took an egg from a donor, Richard reassures her by saying, “You would get to carry the baby!” To which Rachel replies, “Whoop-de-doo! What does that make me, the bellhop?” Hahn, so brittle she looks ready to snap, grounds a rejoinder like that in a core of melancholy, and Giamatti makes Richard an aging nerd of tremulous understanding who’s not about to let that stop him from spewing what’s on his mind. These two carve out a space to say whatever they think, no matter how harsh.
“Private Life” is full of lusciously awkward truth-telling arguments, like the one in which Rachel blames the feminism she grew up with for the predicament in which she now finds herself. She and Richard, who are in their forties, live in a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, where they once wrote and staged plays at a celebrated small theater, but that dream is out of gas. The movie looks into the heart of a certain kind of passionate but minor artistic player who wanted too much and didn’t think about the future when it was already rushing past them.
The fertility treatments are expensive — $10,000 for a single IVF, in which an egg is fertilized outside the body, then implanted. And these two are running out of cash. So Richard borrows from his brother, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), and his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), whose daughter, Sadie (Kayli Carter) — Charlie is her stepfather — is an aspiring fiction writer. At 25, she’s still struggling to graduate from Bard, so she comes to stay with Richard and Rachel, who get the idea of using one of her eggs to generate their pregnancy. Kayli Carter is an actress in the plaintive, wise-beyond-her-years spirit of Saoirse Ronan and Shailene Woodley, and she makes Sadie’s decision to donate her egg a case of a lost girl caught up in an act of generosity that remains over her head.
“Private Life” deserves an audience, though its possibilities may be limited — by the fact that it’s a Netflix release (and is therefore likely to face an extremely small-scale theatrical life), and by the question of how many people who have not dealt with fertility issues are going to want to seek out a movie devoted to the people who do. It comes as no surprise that Tamara Jenkins, by her own statement, lived a version of this film before she made it, which is part of why she was away from movies for 10 years. “Private Life” confirms the fluky pull of her voice.