Writer-director Tamara Jenkins has only made three features in 20 years, but each one feels like the work of someone who has continued to chip away at her screenplay the entire time — adding details, refining characters, getting everything just so. All three are about families on the edge: Her 1998 debut, Slums of Beverly Hills, follows a teenager (Natasha Lyonne) whose nomadic single father moves her and her brothers from one run-down apartment to another within the same elite school district. Her 2007 follow-up, The Savages, brings estranged siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) together to take care of their elderly, dementia-riddled father. And now Private Life, debuting on Netflix, runs through the painful trials of a middle-aged couple desperate to have a baby after their biological clocks have expired.
Jenkins makes comedy-dramas laced with acid one-liners and moments of heartbreak, but what most stands out most about them is their candor. Her families are never the type to repress their feelings about each other, but their fights tend to be constructively explosive, a necessary airing of resolvable grievances. Private Life gets into bracing specifics about the options and ardors of egg donation, testicular extraction, and in vitro fertilization, but it's ultimately about a married couple in crisis and the difficult process of finding each other again. That they put themselves through such an odyssey to have a kid says as much about their devotion to each other as it does about their desire to add to their family.
Yet Private Life, like Jenkins' other films, isn't dreary in the least, even at those low moments when hopes are dashed and relationships seem unsalvageable. And it starts with the inspired casting of Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as Rachel and Richard, a couple of New York writers whose careers have consumed their lives without ever taking them out of their childless, rent-controlled, East Village rut. With Hahn and Giamatti as the leads, sarcasm is always the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but lately, Rachel and Richard are turning their barbs toward each other, because every avenue to parenthood has been hitting a dead end. Not long after the film opens, their latest attempt at $10,000-a-pop fertilization falls to insufficient eggs and blocked sperm, but they keep on trying, because their marriage must remain viable, too.
They're also hedging their bets: While they explore various medial options for pregnancy, they offer themselves as candidates for adoption, which leads to the folly of Richard frantically hiding all of his wife's fertility medicine from a visiting social worker. When their 25-year-old step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), a college dropout with literary ambitions, comes to stay with them while she sorts out her future, Rachel and Richard approach her with the idea of being an egg donor. Sadie, who adores her "cool" aunt and uncle from the city, immediately agrees, but the idea doesn't sit well with Sadie's parents, Cynthia (Molly Shannon) and Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), who worry their daughter isn't up for that responsibility. Indeed, as the egg donation process wears on, it exacts a steep physical and psychological toll.
And yet, again, Private Life is often a miraculously funny movie, trading on gallows humor and life's minor absurdities. At the clinic, their doctor (Denis O'Hare) likens eggs and sperm to the seltzer and syrup in a soda machine and tries to relax Rachel during a gynecological procedure by piping in prog rock. Scrolling through web page after web page of potential egg donors, Rachel and Richard casually trade one-liners about the candidates, like one that plays college golf or another whose favorite book is The Fountainhead or a third with a B.A. in journalism and cinema studies. ("No wonder she's selling her eggs. She can't get a job.") And whenever Rachel faces serious adversity, Hahn blows her stack in gloriously unfiltered, unprintable bursts of profanity.
Yet Jenkins delivers honestly on the stresses and emotions of this situation, too, most touchingly in Sadie's devotion to her aunt and uncle, which shifts from impulsive generosity to a more dangerous self-sacrifice. For as much as Private Life understands about the procedural ins and outs of assisted pregnancy, the effort to have a child isn't the real story here. Jenkins has made a film about marriage and family and personhood, catching Rachel and Richard at a time in their lives where something is missing, and a child just seems like that crucial piece of the puzzle. It's only in the staggeringly beautiful denouement that they arrive at what looks like an answer.