Kathryn Hahn Is Dazzling in Private Life, a Tale About Makeshift Families

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Photo: Jojo Whilden/Netflix/Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Of the many reasons to treasure the work of Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills, The Savages), the best might be her cunning way with a non sequitur. In Private Life, her new film screening at the Sundance Film Festival, many of her scenes begin on a disorienting note, but all those goofy discontinuities spring from the same uncomfortable place. When you do get your bearings, you’re further and deeper into the emotion of the scene than if you’d entered through the front door.

Private Life is a comedy of sorts — hilarious until about the four-fifths mark, when the sadness is finally too thick to be cut by flashes of wit. The central couple, Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), has been relentlessly unsuccessful at conceiving a child (she’s 41, he’s 47 with one testicle), and their attempts to adopt have gone nowhere, crushingly. The underlying feeling is: This is not how Nature is supposed to work. And: This is how Nature works in an age when couples — for all kinds of good reasons in this particular culture and economy — wait so long to have kids. Is Rachel — a writer who wanted time to make her mark — to blame? Is it Richard, busy running a small theater company and managing a pickle company on the side? Is it Gloria Steinem?

The first half-hour of Private Life is one seriocomic jolt after another. Couples sit in an infertility doctor’s waiting room in miserably dead silence. Women wander clinic halls in paper-thin gowns with little shower caps, waiting for their insides to be poked and their eggs harvested. Porn movies — intended to inspire sperm delivery — seem stunningly inapposite. An overly breezy doctor (Denis O’Hare) eyeballs two ova and in the tones of a racetrack tipster tells the stirruped Rachel, “I’d put my money on that one … Now let’s get pregnant!” What once was private, discussed in a hush (if at all), is now the stuff of sight gags. And while all these couples’ hopes go up and down and up and down, the infertility industry sails on.

Amid such impersonality, it’s no wonder that Richard and Rachel practically fall on Sadie (Kayli Carter), the stepdaughter of Richard’s brother, a 25-year-old aspiring writer and Bard dropout. It’s like a deus ex machina when Sadie phones and asks to stay in Manhattan with her aunt and uncle, whom she reveres. Rachel is a blessed relief from Sadie’s ultra-critical mother — Molly Shannon in the kind of role that Kathryn Hahn usually plays.

Hallelujah that she isn’t playing it this time. Rubber-faced and often squirm-inducingly high-strung, Hahn is primarily known for nutball comedy, but she’s just as disarming when playing straight — when she holds her features in check and you register all the energy building up inside her. Jenkins purposefully hugs the border between gripe comedy and high drama: You never know if what comes out of Rachel’s mouth will be a Neil Simon–ish plaint or something driving, with a sting. Richard doesn’t know either.

Good as Giamatti is at playing assholes and connivers, I like him even better when he plays decent, often doleful men who’ve never quite achieved the success they deserve and learn the value of what they have. He’s wonderful here — maybe better than he’s ever been, because so much of his performance is keyed to Hahn’s. (In the end credits, they’re side by side, not sequential, which is just right.) Giamatti’s plummy voice has gotten more soulful as he has aged — there are cracks in it now. At a low moment in the film, Richard is stunningly insensitive, but that turn — a seeming non sequitur, centered on the couple’s nonexistent sex life — makes so much retrospective sense.

Jenkins has given Kayli Carter — who had a small role in Godless — a dream part, and it’s hard to imagine a better fit. Red-haired and fair-skinned, Carter doesn’t have a face you need to study for clues about what she’s feeling. Every emotion rushes to the front. Her Sadie has no confidence in herself, but she knows her own heart. That’s a lot of the battle.

In one scene, Sadie points out that breakfast with her aunt and uncle — cappuccinos, the crossword puzzle, hovering dogs — is “like an ad for assholes,” the idea being that poseurs have co-opted this simple, “alternative” lifestyle. That line sounds a bit defensive — on Jenkins’s part — in an age in which “white-people problems” is so wounding a dismissal. But Jenkins’s writing underlines the fundamental instability at the heart of all our lives, while proposing that most universal of remedies: empathy, love. The end of Private Life is both open and beautifully conclusive — a last shot that I didn’t want to end. Especially because Jenkins’s last movie, The Savages, was 11 years ago, and I don’t think I can wait that long to be so dazzlingly upended again.

Kathryn Hahn Is Dazzling in Tamara Jenkins’ ‘Private Life’