Private Life opens with a nice bit of visual wit. A woman lies on her side on a bed, her midsection exposed, creating a composition that suggests something sexual is at play. After a moment a man enters the frame—only to inject her in the behind with fertility drugs. That doesn’t only kill the mood for Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti); it negates the possibility of a mood even existing.
As Private Life follows Rachel and Richard’s journey, in their 40s, to have children, it tackles the difficult realities of life with rueful honesty. The couple has been at it for awhile and currently have both in vitro fertilization and adoption in play. (Their sister-in-law Cynthia, played by Molly Shannon, calls them “fertility junkies.”) As she did with The Savages, about a brother and sister facing their father’s fading health, writer-director Tamara Jenkins looks at life’s challenges with an unblinking eye that occasionally sneaks in a wink.
She’s also once again drawn stellar work from a talented cast. Giamatti is as fatalistically solid as ever (“Don’t knock denial,” Richard says at one point), but also generous in the way he concedes to Hahn, who up until now has mostly been known for comic performances. She’s stunning here, giving Rachel a fierce anger over having her dignity routinely invaded by medical procedures. There are some lines she just won’t cross, as when she goes into a rage at Richard’s suggestion that they take down a painting with full frontal female nudity before an adoption counselor comes to interview them. This leads to another great visual gag, as the next shot is from the counselor’s point of view, looking at Rachel, Richard and their two dogs sitting on a couch, attempting to project an image of peaceful domesticity right beneath the offending frame.
This isn’t to suggest that Hahn just hits one note really well. She gives Rachel a full life, often in the tiniest of moments. One of my favorite touches is the way she affectionately kicks Richard as their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) reads from an old Village Voice review praising one of his theater productions from their youth. Hahn and Giamatti make for a great movie couple, in that the very way they stand near each other makes you believe they’ve already been through better and worse.
When Sadie drops out of school, she moves in with Rachel and Richard, forming an unconventional but loving family unit. Carter, with only a few credits to her name, matches Hahn and Giamatti beat for beat, and isn’t afraid to make Sadie a frustrating presence. But I have to return to Molly Shannon as Cynthia, Sadie’s mom. There’s a moment where Sadie is explaining another poor decision and while Cynthia is nodding in agreement, every other feature on her face is screaming, “No!” Indeed, Private Life is itself generous enough to make room for Cynthia’s struggle with menopause, and Shannon—another comic actress who aside from Year of the Dog has had little chance to show her range—makes the most of every moment she gets.
In keeping with its emphasis on realism, Private Life doesn’t build to a melodramatic conclusion, but instead leaves us with one of those open-ended finales in which the credits roll as the actors stay silently in character. More than big crying scenes, I think these sorts of moments are among the greatest screen tests of acting prowess. It should come as no surprise that Hahn and Giamatti make you wish those credits never end.