Movie Review – Private Life (2018)
This is only the third feature film directed by Tamara Jenkins in 20 years. I haven’t seen her first feature, but I did see her second flick, The Savages (2007), which I thought was very well done. I haven’t seen The Savages since it was released 11 years ago, but this film might just be her best. Arguably, there are a lot of similarities between this film and her previous. Like The Savages, this narrative centers on a couple dealing with serious family issues, specifically stemming from the interactions between the couple and a third family member. Instead of being brother and sister, the couple here is a married woman and man. The third family member in question isn’t their father. The third family member is their step-niece. Jenkins is dealing with almost opposite themes. The Savages is about death or the specter of death. This film is conversely about life or the creation of life. It’s specifically about parenthood, or rather the anticipation thereof.
Kathryn Hahn (Transparent and Parks and Recreation) stars as Rachel Biegler, a writer in Brooklyn who has works published in literary journals and similar magazines. She’s over the age of 40 and feels her biological clock is soon reaching menopause. She seemingly focused on her education and her career, but now, time’s running out if she wants to have a child naturally. She’s not opposed to adoption, but having a child with her and her husband’s DNA is something that she wants more and has priority to her. However, being so late in the biological game, she’s very desperate, as well as exasperated and frustrated because she and her husband have been trying for a while, possibly years, with absolutely no luck.
Paul Giamatti (Love & Mercy and Sideways) also stars as Richard Grimes, the husband to Rachel. He’s a playwright. He’s the perfect partner to Rachel. He seems very in sync with her with very similar sensibilities and intellect. He’s also enabling what might be his and Rachel’s fatal flaw. They’re referred to as “fertility junkies.” In general, both Richard and Rachel are obsessed with having a baby through biological means. They meet with an adoption agency, but it seems as if there is some kind of stigma for someone seeking adoption who also does fertility treatments at the same time, which Richard and Rachel do.
They’re akin to gamblers. They’re not much different from the people who sit for hours and hours at a slot machine in a casino somewhere. Their path is challenged when it becomes clear that their only avenue is surrogacy and not even surrogacy using Rachel’s ovum. What Jenkins does is take the audience through the step-by-step process of what Richard and Rachel have to experience. With the help of Hahn and Giamatti’s performances, the film walks through that process with aplomb and the comedy consists of great dry and ironic wit. The best parts are the looks on both of their faces during wordless stares at someone for something they’ve said. There’s just great humor in every scene with bits of dialogue or reactions to situations that are nothing short of brilliant. Yet, underneath bubbles a lot of heartfelt emotion, especially from Hahn who does such a great job of embodying this character.
Kayli Carter (Godless) co-stars as Sadie Barrett, the aforementioned step-niece. She’s a college dropout who decides to live with Rachel and Richard, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her mother is Cynthia Grimes, played by Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live), and Cynthia is the most dismayed by Richard and Rachel as fertility junkies. Cynthia is the most dismissive of them. Cynthia’s husband is Richard’s brother, but he isn’t Sadie’s biological father. Sadie loves her mother, but Sadie identifies more with Rachel and Richard because they have the kind of life that she wants. She wants to be a successful, published writer living in the city, but they’re also kind of surrogate parents to her.
She’s clearly a young girl trying to find purpose in her life or a chance to do something of substance. That could be why she agrees to be the surrogate for Rachel and Richard. What follows strangely reminded me of a film that came out earlier this year. Jason Reitman’s Tully was about a woman named Marlo who hires a night nanny named Tully to help her take care of her newborn baby. The film was an examination of motherhood, the difficulties and the gritty and not-so-pretty reality of it. Tully was also about a woman reflecting on her youth and what she perhaps sacrificed.
Here, there are scenes between Rachel and Sadie that reminded me of scenes between Marlo and Tully. It’s a dynamic of an older woman and a younger one, ultimately reflecting on a woman’s role in parenthood. In this film, the dynamic relates to trying to enter into parenthood, whereas Tully related already being in the thick of it. This film though doesn’t have the weird, narrative twist that Tully has, which undermines what the message of that movie was. Jenkins doesn’t have a weird twist. She merely leads the audience down this awkward road assuredly.
The ending to this film is also one of the best endings to a film that I’ve seen all year. Not only is the ending here perfect, but it speaks again to a director who is so assured in what she’s doing and what she’s trying to say, or the characters she’s trying to communicate. Some might see the ending as a critique or condemnation of the surrogacy process or even the fertility process. It’s mainly just about the characters of Rachel and Richard. However, I don’t know that I’ve seen a movie that has made becoming parents as depressing as this film. Yet, it’s not depressing in a bad way. It’s depressing in a satirical way.
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.
Available on Netflix.