The three things most couples fight about are said to be sex, money and kids. Tamara Jenkins has managed to up the ante for one stressed-out husband and wife by combining all of them in her latest movie.
"Private Life " is a deeply personal — perhaps even invasive — look at the challenges facing one privileged, artsy New York couple: Rachel and Richard, played perfectly by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, who are hoping to get pregnant via assisted reproduction.
They're trying to have a child late in life and do virtually everything — IUI, IVF, egg donation, sperm boosts and adoption. That means tests, injections, probes, pills, more tests and more injections. It takes its toll, both emotionally and financially. One of their relatives derisively calls them "fertility junkies."
Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills" and "The Savages") both wrote and directed "Private Life," her first film in 11 years and she has said it was inspired in part by her own struggles to have a child. That has clearly informed her wonderful knack for capturing the various absurdities when cold medicine meets intimate biology.
Though at times meandering, a knowing and sympathetic humor pervades the film, with shots of anxious couples marooned in doctor waiting rooms, bumpy New York taxi rides or quiet moments with Rachel and Richard padding around in those ridiculous hospital gowns. One fabulous scene has Richard trying in vain to turn down the volume on clinic-offered porn while exam table paper is stuck to his bottom.
Hahn's Rachel is both gleefully neurotic and deeply anguished, and Giamatti's Richard is resigned and exhausted. Both are wordlessly wonderful as they fight to remain optimistic in the face of repeatedly bad medical news. As they scroll through online profiles of potential egg donors, Rachel cracks that it's like "eBay for ova."
Others in the cast include a terrific Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch as relatives facing their own crises, and a simply perfect Denis O'Hare as a slightly creepy and blithe fertility doctor. "OK, let's get pregnant, shall we?" he says more than once.
Jenkins' music is inspired. A character suspects she's "a broken toy" and soon a version of "Nobody Wants a Broken Toy" plays. The varied soundtrack has Motown, Johann Sebastian Bach, Brian Eno, Billie Holiday and also includes a brilliant sequence that uses Steve Miller's "Quicksilver Girl."
At times, Rachel and Richard's quest for children seems to be an end in and of itself. They offer no real overt adoration of children, no cooing over baby onesies. They haven't even worked out where they will deliver, if they get so lucky. One Halloween, they forget that kids will be at the door asking for candy.
The script crackles with small, brilliant moments, like a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong or the way Jenkins shows the deflation of Rachel and Richard's dreams when Richard silently collapses an air mattress. For a hyper-literate, overthinking couple, Jenkins creates clever references to Gloria Steinem, "The Handmaid's Tale" and global warming. Rachel wonders if she should even raise a child amid the rise of "neo-fascism."
A possible solution to their problem comes in the form of a sweet but naive niece, 25-year-old Sadie (an excellent Kayli Carter). Sadie might want to donate an egg to help the process but can she handle the wild trip ahead? At one anxious point, she's asked about her own eggs. "Scrambled is good," she replies, misunderstanding.
The film slightly breaks down at this point, bending to absorb the new character and never fully solving her presence. Sadie's arc — and a regrettably clumsy end — turns out to be only a brief sojourn, and then it's back to Rachel and Richard and their baby stress test. "Private Life" basically peters out at the end and reveals itself for what it has always been: Not a quest so much as a profile in love's resilience.
"Private Life," a Netflix release, is rated R and contains nudity, swearing and medical procedures. Running time: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars of four.