“Caustically funny and observant.”
by Ken Bakely
The more consider it, the more I realize how painfully accurate Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life is in its emulation of anxiety. The film depicts its characters’ focus on a single topic, reaching out for any possible way to alleviate their concerns. All the while, prior negative experiences color their consciences and stick around as constant irritants of the present. For Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), a middle-aged couple in New York City, the subject of their anxiety is their attempts to have a child. Artificial insemination, IVF, and adoption have all proven unsuccessful, and their relationship suffers as the stresses of each failed attempt pile up. Eventually, they decide to look for an egg donor, a search which improbably ands them with Richard’s collegiate step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter).
Sadie is an aspiring writer who has dropped out of school, who, looking to make the move from the suburbs to the city, winds up crashing at Rachel and Richard’s cramped apartment. She agrees to be a donor immediately upon being asked, both needing the money and seeing it as an opportunity to make an Important Adult Decision. The joke there is that her personality is rather naïve to begin with. She’s boisterous without realizing it – dropping forced, accidentally insulting cultural references at every turn – but her struggles are strangely complementary to Richard and Rachel’s. These characters seek remedies to ongoing anxieties (for Richard and Rachel, their desire for children; for Sadie, her quest to find a voice as an artist and lay down independent roots as a young adult), and Jenkins guides us through their neuroses. Her characters are uncomfortably recognizable, loaded with contradictions and irrational worries, stumbling through life while holding onto a blurry vision of some kind of brighter future. Private Life is a title steeped in multiple meanings. It invokes the maintenance of personal relationships; the messy complications that we don’t want others to see; and our imprecise conception of our goals and fears, alongside the feedback loop that they deliver each other.
Giamatti and Hahn supply their characters with ample implied background in this respect. They convey the pain of an ongoing personal challenge that absorbs their professional concerns – Rachel is a writer dealing with the headaches of editing and publishing, and Richard is a former theatre producer who left the arts for a dull business career – into one intimidating omni-spiral. In that sense, it’s telling that references to their work are effectively throwaway jokes. Everything combines in their middle-aged malaise, and the fact that they’re fixated on having a child, a pursuit typical of much younger people, cements that feeling of missed chances. There’s added irony in the fact that Sadie has long admired their creative lives. Still ensconced in the childlike belief that the adults in her life exist for little other function than to provide perfect wisdom or opportunities for growth, she rarely considers the possibility that they experience insecurity like she does, if just over different subjects.
It’s these unspoken misunderstandings and spoken awkward exchanges that make Private Life as caustically funny and observant a film as it is. The rare explosions of emotion and confusion are nearly startling, but Jenkins carefully navigates the transition between her characters’ internalized concerns and externalized posturing. A key example of this is a scene set at Thanksgiving dinner, when Sadie abruptly announces to her entire extended family – but particularly, her mother Cynthia (Molly Shannon) – that she is Rachel and Richard’s egg donor. There is no consultation with anyone before she decides to make this information public. Rachel and Richard try to stop her with nonverbal signals. Cynthia, already concerned about Sadie’s stunted emotional development, sees this as the biggest example yet of her daughter’s inability to see beyond the current moment. The dynamics of the sequence and its aftermath play to the film’s greatest strengths. It’s an example of its rich characterization. We know that none of these imbalances will ideally resolve themselves at the right time, but the relationships will evolve in accordance to an interior logic that’s in tune with each plot development. Jenkins has made a movie not about self-imposed accomplishments or arcs, but the people who create their meaning and the concerns that go with them. And as pointed as that may be, it’s all so smartly realized that we have no trouble connecting it to our own experiences, and processing it from there.