Comedies about Manhattan intellectuals are often of a type: breezy, short, full of clever repartee and fraught romantic pairings. Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’s first movie in 11 years, certainly presents as such. Debuting Friday on Netflix, the film follows Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti); both are writers, although Rachel is getting ready to publish a new book and Richard is now largely devoting his energies to an artisanal pickle company. The couple lives in Chinatown, where they drop pithy references to Wendy Wasserstein and eat around a cramped kitchen table.
But Jenkins has never been interested in breeziness. Her other two films, Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and The Savages (2008), were acutely observed portraits of family that thrived in uneasy moments. Even by that measure, Private Life is impressively squirmy, delving into every nook and cranny of Richard and Rachel’s experience as a 40-something couple trying to conceive a child. Rather than delight in their cosmopolitan lifestyle, Jenkins uses her gift for capturing intimacy as a weapon, telling a story that’s sometimes brutal, other times acidly funny, but always honest.
“We’re not insane, we’re normal,” Richard assures his wife as they embark on a $10,000 surgery to retrieve his sperm for potential insemination, but his words seem equally intended for himself. He’s 47, she’s 41, and they’re looking to have a baby by any means necessary. They’re even pursuing adoption and medical intervention at the same time, hoping that a wide-net approach will improve their odds. This means, however, enduring a barrage of emotional and physical trials, such as the many shots Richard has to inject into his wife’s body, the roulette-like nature of IVF, and the intense and unreliable relationships formed online with potential birth mothers.