Private Life is written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, whose last movie was The Savages, released nearly a decade ago.
That seems like an awfully long time between jobs for someone who has an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for her last time out, but Jenkins hasn't been idle.
She cowrote Juliet, Naked, one of the year's better romantic comedies, still in theaters if you want to check it out.
Meanwhile she's been working very hard to bring her latest, Private Life, to the screen (it also starts streaming on Netflix on Friday), and it's possible some of that grim determination/desperation found its way into the movie, the tragicomic story of a New York City couple in their 40s, exhausting their financial and emotional resources on "the project" – using fertility treatment in an attempt to conceive their first child.
The first scene shows us Jenkins' mordant wit – the camera gives us an intimate, blinkered glimpse of a bed, a woman's hip, a man's hand on it, and we hear snippets of conversation about what she wants, and how he is to proceed.
As the camera pulls back, we realize the man is administering a shot of some kind, part of what we infer is a familiar fertility treatment ritual, and the message of the scene is clear – whatever used to occur in the bedroom has been supplanted by this expensive, clinical, and dispiriting process.
Jenkins (who made her feature debut with The Slums of Beverly Hills) is known for comedy that is unsentimental to the point of being a little merciless, and Private Life is unflinchingly candid (and one suspects personally informed) about the way the efforts to produce a human are so dehumanizing – we see the cracks forming in the relationship between writer Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and theater director Richard (Paul Giamatti), whose pickle-company day job has become his job job.
Rachel's sister Cynthia (Molly Shannon) likens their pursuit of a baby to a gambling addiction – they keep getting deeper in the hole, and they keep doubling down hoping the next big bet will pay off.
It's harsh, but not inaccurate. Rachel's affable physician (Denis O'Hare) is frank about the way her age/eggs/hormones affect her chances of conceiving – the odds low, the expense staggering. Other options are suggested – surrogates, donated eggs, each adding more money, more psychological baggage, more people, more problems.
Jenkins manages to find a bleak sort of humor in all of this, but the heartache of the situation is achingly close to the surface. Don't bother judging Richard and Rachel on their choices or their boho privilege – in bitter domestic squabbles, they beat you to it.
Private Life might step outside the realm of comedy entirely if not for the arrival of their niece (Kayli Carter, very good) a lovable flake and college dropout who bunks with them during their trial, and changes the balance of the marriage and the movie, letting in a bit more light.
Still, as character arcs remain doggedly flat, you wonder where the movie is headed. You may still be wondering as the credits roll. Jenkins does something daring with the story's resolution – conceptually brilliant, but you may think that it pays a small dividend on a large emotional investment.
Directed by Tamara Jenkins. With Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Molly Shannon, Kayli Carter, and Denis O'Hare. Distributed by Netflix.
Running time: 132 minutes
Parents guide: R (language)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse