Throwback Review: Private Life is a Sympathetic Portrait of a Lost Couple
It’s a very thin tightrope to walk to make a movie about something without letting the movie become that very thing. Tamara Jenkins’s third feature, Private Life, plumbs the depths of its characters in an effort to understand the myriad ways we suppress our individual identities – casting them aside in pursuit of our goals, subsuming them into our relationships, and sublimating and projecting them into parenthood. It’s a wonder, then, that not only does the film retain its own identity, but it also manages to create detailed, layered, and honest characters. Private Life has a distinct sense of its characters’ selves, even when they do not. The film begins about 90% of the way through Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard’s (Paul Giamatti) years-long struggle to have a child – they’re throwing everything at the wall, trying adoption and In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) simultaneously. At this point, as Richard puts it, they’re not mad anymore, they’re just “whatever, I don’t know, tired.” Richard hates when Rachel brings up his lone testicle to their doctor; Rachel loses her patience with a friend who offers her prosecco while she’s cycling. It’s Rachel and Richard’s sister-in-law, Cynthia, played with beautiful restraint by Molly Shannon, who succinctly summarizes the pair’s pursuit: “Their marriage is a mess, they’re all strung out, they’ve been doing this for years. They’re like fertility junkies.” And there it is. It’s not just a pursuit, it’s an obsession. Private Life subtly shows us throughout its runtime that this obsession has forced the couple to sacrifice their respective identities. Rachel is a successful author, while Richard is a one-time luminary in the New York City theater world. At a party with seemingly like-minded former bohemians, a friend tries to discuss Rachel’s upcoming book, but Rachel deftly steers the conversation toward her IVF efforts after she is offered a glass of alcohol. It’s not that she wants to talk about it – she’s clearly uncomfortable, and makes a show of avoiding the topic – it’s that she can’t help it. This hunt for a child has come to define her, and she doesn’t know how to talk about anything else. The struggle between the couple’s desperate attempts at a family and their feeble efforts to retain a shred of their past selves finds an unlikely watershed moment in an obscene piece of art. As Rachel and Richard prepare for a social worker to arrive for an adoption interview, the two bicker over a painting that features a woman’s vagina, framed prominently above the couch where the couple plan to sit. Richard thinks it will send the wrong message; Rachel, on the other hand, thinks that if their social worker is “so uptight that she would actually deny us a child because we have a vagina on our wall, well then it’s like, screw everything.” It’s an absurd, comedic moment that raises a profound question: at what point does the pursuit of a dream – whether for a family or something else – lose its worth? At what point should a person draw the line and protect their individuality? Because as Jenkins so masterfully shows us, these two 40-somethings have – or had – incredibly distinct personalities. As the two forget who they once were, visual reminders litter the screen for the first 45 minutes: bookshelves crammed every which way with idiosyncratic titles; unique candles on the mantle; newspaper records of Richard’s theater collective; obscure film and literary references in their otherwise mundane conversations. It’s all there, Jenkins is just asking her audience to look and listen closely. And then, as Private Life begins to open up, the characters do too. When Richard’s niece, Sadie, comes to crash with the unhappy couple after taking a leave of absence from college at the already-mature age of 25, an opportunity arises. Sadie agrees to serve as the egg donor for their renewed IVF efforts, much to the chagrin of her mother, and Richard and Rachel have a new lease on life. And just as Rachel and Richard expand their pursuit of a family, Jenkins expands her examination of the many ways we suffocate ourselves. Cynthia, perpetually disappointed in her daughter, erupts when she learns of Sadie’s plans, taking her frustration out on all three parties involved. She doesn’t want Sadie throwing her life, and her body, away. As the family tug-o-war continues, Jenkins doles out bits of information about her supporting characters that gradually reveal them as nuanced portraits of identity crises. In the midst of an argument, Sadie reveals that her mother dropped out of college to have her, sacrificing her dreams for her family. Sadie asks her: “Why do you feel so cheated by life, mom?” We feel the angst in real-time as it hits Cynthia full-on. Later in the film, as Cynthia breaks down in seemingly sad-tears shortly after hearing that her other daughter, Charlotte, got into her dream college, we realize why: it isn’t just the pursuit of parenthood that can swallow a person whole; parenthood itself can do that just as effectively. And for Cynthia, it has. As for Sadie, the opportunity to selflessly help her favorite aunt and uncle start a family has given her a convenient place to bury her own problems. She goes on leave from college, moves into the couple’s Manhattan apartment, and takes the two on a road trip down memory lane full of no-filter conversations. Gone are signs that she’s “not doing well,” as she told her mother in the opening moments of the film. She’s finally found a purpose. As she tells her mom, she’s helping people she loves start a family, and really, “what could be more meaningful?” This same arrangement offers Rachel and Richard a window into their former identities. Sadie reminds them of who they were – who they still are, in many ways. They take her around their neighborhood, the food carts and the bars and the restaurants that have been there this whole time, but whose existence was lost in their obsessive pursuit. Sadie pulls out old news articles and stories of their artistic exploits, granting them leave to reminisce in the glow of their past selves. After Sadie criticizes her mother’s fashion sense to Rachel, oblivious to how close her aunt has drifted toward those same trends, Rachel rediscovers her own unique style. When Sadie sets up a DIY in-apartment anniversary dinner for them, the three have a charmed night, Rachel and Richard’s relationship seemingly returned to its former glory. It’s during this stretch that Private Life is at its best, perfectly conveying that indescribable feeling of losing and rediscovering hope. The music changes, a quiet score and sullen soundtrack making way for a lively, pop-heavy second act, at times invoking the light-hearted, carefree essence of Marvin Hamlisch’s score for The Sting. For two particular sequences that could have been titled “Out on the Town,” Jenkins switching up her lens, bathing the trio in sepia tones that feel like a Kodak camera, naturally evoking the nostalgia of good times gone by – impressive work for her first time working in digital. But Private Life is that type of film, and Jenkins that type of filmmaker, that doesn’t waste a single tool in the toolbox. The house of cards comes crashing down as Sadie’s efforts to help the pair conceive through IVF encounter a series of obstacles. After Sadie is late to an appointment, Rachel snaps at her for being irresponsible, and Richard erupts at the doctor for treating his niece like a chicken, criticizing her eggs. Through a series of visceral moments, Jenkins lays bare the fallacy of Rachel and Richard’s rebirth as a couple: they never rediscovered themselves, they merely papered over the uglier parts of their obsession, channeling their energy into Sadie. And finally, in repeated failure comes the antidote: acceptance. Cynthia accepts her daughter – she’s “not cool with it,” as she says, but she will support her. Sadie, in turn, accepts that she cannot avoid her own problems by trying so solve those of her aunt and uncle, and enrolls in residency at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat. As for Rachel and Richard, it’s the acceptance that this obsession has come with a cost. “I just want my life back,” Richard says, after painfully admitting that a part of him is happy that this latest attempt has failed. And with two simple scenes after an ironic nine-month time jump, Jenkins illustrates exactly what it looks like to get your life back. Early in the film, both Rachel and Richard forget that it’s Halloween, and sit silent as a pair of kids knock on their door. “Shit, just don’t answer.” And they don’t. One full turn of the calendar finds Richard boisterously opening the door in a Richard Nixon mask, handing out candy and slipping in a Clinton reference to the kids born far after his presidency. It’s a small moment, but an important one: the couple has restored some pieces of their former selves previously torn apart by the addiction to finding a family. And in the film’s gut-wrenching closing scene, Jenkins touches on just how complicated that balancing act can be. Despite some semblance of a return to normalcy, Richard and Rachel are drawn in once again by a potential adoption. During a meeting with their social worker early in the film, the pair recount in heart-breaking fashion the catfish that led them to a restaurant, sitting across from each other, waiting for a mother who would never come. This time, as the film closes, they’re back at a restaurant, hoping to see a mother walk through that door. The credits roll as they wait, the audience left in limbo – but it doesn’t matter. This time, Richard moves around the booth to sit next to his wife. This time, Rachel smiles at Richard. This time, they hold hands, waiting together for the family that may never come. They’ve found a way to maintain their identities as individuals and as a couple, even while unable to fully kick their so-called fertility habit. Whether or not they get their fix, that makes all the difference in the world. And it’s that refusal to avoid troubling questions or manufacture easy answers that makes Private Life one of the best films of the 2010s.