“Private Life”, which was released on Netflix this Friday, is alternatively amusing and touching in its intimate and humorous depiction of an ordinary couple struggling with their infertility problem for a long time. While generating lots of small good laughs from their rocky emotional journey, the movie also looks closely into the ups and downs of their life and relationship, and we are often moved by a number of honest and sincere moments observed from them and other characters around them.
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play Rachel and Richard Grimes, who are your average sophisticated couple living in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. Richard was once a prominent theater director, but he has earned his living through a small pickle company for years, and it looks like he will be stuck with that business of his for the rest of his life. In case of Rachel, she has been active as a writer, but she has not been that successful, and she is also constantly distracted by her ongoing infertility problem.
Both Richard and Rachel have tried to do as much as they can for having a child, and they have surely gone to their infertility clinic many times, but the circumstance has always disappointed them. They recently decided to try in vitro fertilization (IVF), so she her several ova collected from her ovary, but, alas, it turns out that there is a problem with Richard’s reproductive organ, and that means they will have to spend extra $10,000 for extracting sperms from Richard’s testicle (he has only one testicle, by the way).
In the meantime, Richard and Rachel also try adoption just in case although that process is more difficult for them. When a social worker visits them for a consultative interview, we get a funny moment as they try to look as nice and respectable as possible in front of their social worker, but then it is followed by a flashback sequence which shows us how much they have wanted to have a child, and we come to understand and emphasize with them more than before.
To their big disappointment, their latest attempt for Rachel’s pregnancy fails, and their doctor suggests another option. Considering that Rachel’s ova seem to be not that healthy enough for IVF, they may have to use healthier ova from a younger woman. While Rachel is understandably not so pleased about this option, Richard is more open to this option in comparison, and the apparent difference in their opinions leads to a big argument between them. While never overlooking their respective emotional issues, the movie also recognizes how silly they look during their argument, and Hahn and Giamatti handle this scene well with the excellent comic timing between them.
In the end, Rachel and Richard agree to have to find an ovum donor together, and there soon comes a supposedly ideal candidate. When Sadie (Kayli Carter), the stepdaughter of Richard’s brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), comes to stay in Rachel and Richard’s residence not long after dropping out from her college, Rachel and Richard begin to regard this smart young girl as a possible ovum donor candidate, and we accordingly get a couple of hilarious scenes as they try to see whether Sadie is okay with that.
To their surprise, Sadie is totally fine with being the ovum donor for them because she really likes them. As an aspiring writer, she enjoys being with Rachel and Richard, and she certainly loves how open they are to talk with her about anything. At one point, Sadie and they freely talk about cunninglingus on a dinner table, and there is also an amusing moment when she talks about how much she despises those ludicrous short stories written by her classmates. She sharply criticizes them for writing stories insincerely based on their privileged middle-class life, but we observe that she is not so different from them in many aspects, so we cannot help but amused while listening to her along with Richard and Rachel.
When Charlie and his wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon) happen to learn about what their daughter is going to do with Richard and Rachel, they are certainly surprised. While Charlie does not object much to his stepdaughter’s decision, Cynthia becomes quite exasperated, but the movie thankfully avoids presenting her as a merely angry mother. Although she can be domineering at times, Cynthia does care about her daughter nonetheless, and she later has a thoughtful conversation with her daughter. Like any good mothers, she simply wants her daughter to live well and be happy, and their dynamic relationship may remind you of the similar mother and daughter relationship in “Lady Bird” (2017).
As leisurely rolling its story and characters together, the screenplay by director/writer Tamara Jenkins, who rose to prominence via her Oscar-nominated film “The Savages” (2007), continues to give us more nice moments to be cherished, and Jenkins also did a good job of establishing the vivid, realistic atmosphere around her characters. I was impressed by the tangible sense of daily life even from such tiny details as numerous books and other noticeable objects in Richard and Rachel’s apartment, and I particularly appreciated the realistic details in infertility clinic scenes in the film. Not so surprisingly, Jenkin’s screenplay is inspired by her own experience with infertility clinic, and she certainly handles her story and characters with care and affection while often demonstrating her sharp sense of humor coupled with thoughtful human insights.
As the center of the movie, Giamatti and Hahn are fabulous in their nuanced performance filled with subtle touches to notice. While Giamatti is perfectly cast as a man who has nursed worries and insecurities behind his phlegmatic appearance, Hahn, who has shown more of her talent during recent years, is convincing as embodying her character’s emotional needs, and they ably convey to us their characters’ complex relationship without making any misstep.
On the opposite, Kayli Carter, whose perky performance reminds me a lot of Saroise Ronan in “Lady Bird”, is very good as another important part of the story, and other notable performers in the movie are also solid in their respective roles. Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch are reliable as usual, and Denis O’Hare, a veteran character actor who has been more prominent thanks to his enjoyable supporting turn in TV series “American Horror Story”, has some deadpan fun as Richard and Rachel’s infertility clinic doctor.
Almost impeccable in terms of storytelling and performance, “Private Life” is a small gem you should not miss, and I am certainly glad that it is widely available via Netflix. It may look modest on the surface, but it is full of life and personality, and you will feel satisfied with its nearly perfect last shot after getting to know its main characters a lot more than expected.
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