The best comedies are really testing to watch. They set up scenarios so precarious in their stability that you begin a mental countdown until the whole structure tips over. This is exactly how it is with Private Life, a glorious (and excruciating) comedy-drama, directed by Tamara Jenkins.
Rachel and Richard (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) are typical middle-class, literary New Yorkers. She’s a writer and he’s a stage director. They have been trying for a child for some time, and all avenues are failing them. They’re beginning another round of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), much to the consternation of sister-in-law Cynthia (Molly Shannon).
An interesting problem (and a reminder that they’re past their primes) comes in the form of Sadie (Kayli Carter), their biologically unrelated niece who drops out of her creative writing course at Bard College, citing a period of turbulent emotion as the cause. She goes to stay with Rachel and Richard, hoping for advice on how to start a career in New York’s literary scene. They, in turn, hope she’ll donate to them some of her ova.
Chief among the this movie’s pleasures are the performances of Hahn and Giamatti. Rachel and Richard are a loving and intelligent couple, with an incredible talent for pissing each other off. Where she rails against her life’s inadequacies he finds opportunity for denial, to shrug and get on to the next task.
There’s a wealth of humour in their confrontations, but there’s even more pathos. An early scene, which plays out entirely in heartrending flashback, says all there is to say: they come into contact with a potential birth mother; they talk on Skype, they exchange photographs, they plan to meet. This does not go to plan. Commensurate with the looks of resignation following this are their wry smiles, as perfect a sign as any that they’ll keep trying together, as painful as it may be.
While the film’s shape is not particularly distinctive from other New York movies in the Noah Baumbach/Alex Ross Perry mould, what distinguishes Private Life is its affluence of feeling; scene after scene hits exactly the note of plaintiveness or relief it needs to. Supporting performers such as Carter and John Carroll Lynch as her gormless (but kind) father contribute towards this atmosphere of wistfulness, but paramount is Molly Shannon.
Her character is a real pain, but wholly sympathetic in a way: in one characteristic moment, her other daughter Charlotte (Emily Robinson) runs into her bedroom, announcing excitedly that she’s been accepted by Berkeley; her father leaps off the bed jubilantly to celebrate, but Cynthia is more reserved. Father and daughter look concerned. Cynthia begins to weep. Because she has a spot on her chin. Husband and daughter leave the room, not before delivering a look the word ‘withering’ was designed for. Freud didn’t call it the laughter of unease for nothing.
Private Life is a lovely, honest, saddening, and finally, hopeful film.
Image: Jojo Whilden via Netflix