Sundance 2018: Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life

On Film / The Daily — Jan 19, 2018

“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,” begins Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. Private Life “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. . . . This is first film [Tamara] 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.” 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.”

At RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico notes that Private Life “takes its major turn into something a bit more forced when Rachel and Richard’s step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), comes to stay with them just as their doctor is suggesting an egg donor. . . . While there are earth-shaking emotions at play, at its best, Private Life is a film of beautiful minor beats. There are details in Rachel and Richard’s life—for example, every inch of the production design of a NY apartment occupied by a writer and a theater director seems considered—that greatly enhance this character study. We don’t see that subgenre of film that often anymore, as so many dramas feel like they have something important to say about the entire human condition. This is a ‘character study,’ the story of Rachel, Richard, and Sadie—and it works best when it allows those three characters to breathe, to live, and to feel.”

“Jenkins has a number of issues she wants to tackle with her latest endeavor such as a continuing debate over modern feminism, ageism and whether a successful career can be an adequate supplement for the lack of a family (and vice versa), among others,” suggests Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist. “The good news is her skills as a filmmaker have never been so sharp. . . . That being said, it seems to have all become too precious in the editing room as the same thematic point is frustratingly made again and again.”

Jenkins “sometimes seems to purposely stretch things out to make us feel the agony of its protagonists’ efforts,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore. “But looked at independently, so many scenes contain something raw or truthful that one understands Jenkins’s reluctance to trim.”

“Family dynamics don’t come more complicated than this,” writes Kevin Fallon for the Daily Beast. “And yet, there’s something endearing about the family unit Rachel, Richard, and Sadie form during the IVF treatments, a united goal to distract them from the dejection that reality has all-too-frequently brought them—not to mention the paranoia that it’s coming for them again.”

“There’s always this delay,” Jenkins tells IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, who notes that this is “not the first time this has happened. The Savages came nine years after her first feature, the 1998 Fox Searchlight comedy Slums of Beverly Hills based on her high school years with her broke single father.” But The Savages “became mired in development hell.” Then, Round Two. And now she’s “emerged from her directing hiatus never having shot on digital before, making a $9 million film for Netflix that will barely screen in theaters. But she got to make her movie.”

Updates: “Giamatti could play this kind of role in his sleep but he doesn’t, texturing Richard with rich shades of love and obstinance; he hasn’t been this good since Sideways,” declares IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “Hahn, firmly established as one of the great seriocomic actresses, transitions from high-strung hilarity to utter heartbreak at a moment’s notice, and is equally believable at both ends. Feral and fragile in equal measure, she carries the couple’s pain in every sense of the word; it’s through her eyes that we can appreciate how bittersweet it is that Sadie is becoming the child they never had. Carter, for her part, is wonderfully inscrutable, just flighty enough that Richard and Rachel can never rest easy.”

Private Life is one of the films that Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss on today’s episode of the Film Comment Podcast (30’10”).

Jenkins “transforms this crucible of disappointment and colossal financial strain into something close to a riot, infused with courage and the same dark laughs as last year's girlfriend-in-a-coma dramedy The Big Sick,” writes Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf. “This is a story you'll want to watch to its exquisitely compassionate ending: a wordless final-credits aria that, as with Michael Clayton and Call Me by Your Name, speaks volumes about the nature of minute-to-minute emotional survival.”

Updates, 1/20: “Jenkins doesn’t always excel at blending comedy and drama,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, “and there are moments in Private Life—like just about everything with Sadie’s parents, played by Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch—that flirt with sitcom farce. But the film’s dramatic core, its vision of what this kind of experience can do to a marriage, is rock solid, because Jenkins explores it with a high degree of specificity, precisely dramatizing her own difficult experiences.”

Dispatching to Vulture, David Edelstein notes that “many of her scenes begin on a disorienting note, but all those goofy discontinuities spring from the same uncomfortable place. When you do get your bearings you’re further and deeper into the emotion of the scene than if you’d entered through the front door.”

“Giamatti gives one of his surest, simplest performances in quite a while,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste, and “Hahn has proven to be a deft comedian in everything from Parks & Recreation to Step Brothers, going broad for the Bad Moms movies while receiving acclaim for Transparent and I Love Dick. She can be awfully funny in Private Life—there won’t be a better vagina joke all year—but more often Rachel is flailing, and Hahn makes that disillusionment poignant without an ounce of cutesiness.”

“The film feels like a series of secret conversations—the moments one has in private with a partner that the rest of the world never sees,” writes Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. “‘That was so important to me,’ Jenkins said in an interview ahead of the festival on having the film feel personal. . . . ‘I mean, it's called Private Life, so you're seeing things we don’t necessarily see. I’ve certainly never seen this movie.’”

Updates, 1/21: From Rolling Stone’s David Fear: “You could say this empathetic tale of the boho-bougie has it all: two veteran indie superstars in the zone (nobody does better self-contempt than Hahn), Jenkins’s keen ear for dialogue (we like the bounce of it), witticisms like ‘it’s eBay for ova,’ a breakout star in Carter, painfully real arguments, anxiety and beaucoup references to Yaddo. You could also say it has too much, given that the movie keeps plodding on to the point that it starts to feel like a miniseries about every type of fertility failure known to man or beast. Endings pile up. Emotional beats are hit, then hammered, then finessed, then run themselves into the ground.”

“In one memorable scene, the couple is confronted with the regret over not answering the door when kids in their building come in for Halloween,” notes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “Jenkins pauses the camera in the darkness of their apartment as they sullenly look to the floor, regrets of both not having children of their own and a shame of not making this holiday special for their young neighbors washing over them. It’s these small observations peppered throughout that add a sincere dose of life to Jenkins’s frames, shot by Christos Voudouris, who expertly captured another middle-age relationship in Before Midnight.

Private Life plays like the lighter side of some recent Noah Baumbach ventures,” suggests Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “But at the end of the day, these characters are not members of the same mettle as those troubled but lovable souls in either Slums of Beverly Hills or The Savages.

Update, 1/22: “Emerging from Private Life on Thursday, you could already hear the grumblings about its 132-minute running time,” notes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “What these criticisms miss is how artfully and meaningfully Jenkins pieces together her narrative from a hundred stray moments, exchanges, setbacks and indignities; she has made a movie about what it means to stay committed through the long haul.”

Update, 1/23: “As frequently hilarious, perfectly cast, and wonderfully acted as Private Life is, you live and die right along with Rachel and Richard through their every procreation attempt, sharing their exhaustion and bouts of hopelessness,” writes Vince Mancini at Uproxx. “Because the fantastic never swoops in to lighten the load, it can sap your energy.”

Update, 1/25: “The humor and compassion in Jenkins' writing get at something honest about marriages of a certain age; it's just hard to shake the notion that this script is going through a mid-draft crisis,” writes Scott Renshaw for the Salt Lake City Weekly.

Update, 1/27: Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that “the dialogue is quotable but conversational, and there are some uproarious beats (many provided by Denis O’Hare as Hahn’s peppy, self-consciously cool OBGYN). But Jenkins can flip the switch from genuine hilarity to emotional intensity in an instant (and without skipping a beat), crafting a portrait of a marriage that’s genuine, honest, and at times, uncomfortably real.”

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