“Look at us. We’re like an ad for assholes.”
This is how twenty-five-year-old Sadie (Kayli Carter) affectionately assesses the simple act of sitting down to breakfast with her Step-Uncle Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Step-Aunt Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). It’s a pretty standard layout (toast, coffee, the Sunday New York Times), but it strikes the young college dropout as the kind of played-out ritual to which Manhattan intellectuals mindlessly submit.
Sadie means no harm. She’s just showing off for the two adults she admires most in the world. But unbeknownst to her, she’s slashed close to the bone. Richard and Rachel were, once upon a time, fearless young artists challenging the status quo of the literary and theater worlds; these are the people Sadie loves and venerates. And they love her! They’ve graciously taken her into their modest Avenue A apartment while she figures out her next move (she aspires to be a writer like Rachel). But they’re not looking to shake up the artistic establishment anymore. Nowadays, they desperately yearn to be boring, pushing-fifty assholes with a kid. And while Sadie knows the couple has been exploring every fertility gimmick available for years (this and Richard’s literally emasculating lack of a second testicle are open family secrets), she has no clue that they’ve designs on her eggs.
Tamara Jenkins serves up hilariously uncomfortable moments like this throughout Private Life, and she never once pays them off in a conventionally satisfying manner. In this instance, Richard and Rachel chicken out, postpone the discussion to a casual dinner over burritos and beer, and, after all their agonizing, discover that Sadie is totally cool with the idea of rounding out this mildly icky fertility threesome (they’re not blood relatives, so if you could stomach Cher and Josh hooking up in Clueless, stow your outrage). Jenkins’s third film in twenty years (fuck you, Hollywood) slings these curveballs with gleeful abandon; the writer who made her auspicious debut with the sublime Slums of Beverly Hills means to keep the viewer off-balance as she spins yet another yarn of family dysfunction. It’s a refreshing sense of disorientation.
Jenkins doesn’t make it easy to love these characters. She leads with their ugly qualities. Most of the film’s first act makes an ironclad case for the dissolution of Richard and Rachel’s marriage. For a couple attempting to bring a child into this world, they are distressingly quarrelsome. Everything from a hormone shot in Rachel’s posterior to Richard’s inability to produce sperm while Rachel is ovulating provokes vitriol. They’re unhappy on every level. Introducing a child into this environment would be an act of cruelty.
Jenkins takes her time building to the Sadie solution. She introduces another profoundly unpleasant character in Cynthia (Molly Shannon), Sadie’s disapproving mother who’s coping horribly with the prospect of her youngest child scampering off to college. Sadie’s father, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), is far more agreeable, but he’s also a pushover; when Richard hits him up for $10,000 to pay for eggs from another prospective candidate, he gladly coughs it up. No one in this extended family seems capable of making a responsible decision; given the darkening tone of the film, it seems like the narrative is veering off the James L. Brooks dramedy path and into the misanthropic thicket of a Todd Solondz comedy.
But everyone in life has their reasons, and Jenkins slowly begins to reveal the causes of the bitterness that’s seeped into Richard and Rachel’s lives. The nonstop vituperative banter is their playful way of surviving the setbacks and “emotional scams” thrown in their way. And Sadie isn’t the entitled, pseudointellectual brat she appears to be at first; she’s eccentric for sure, but when she boldly writes an answer to Richard Brodkey’s classic short story “Innocence” titled “Experience”, the result isn’t a daffy punch line. She’s actually talented.
Private Life is long and exhausting and rewarding in a way few films dare to be. Moments and arcs that feel extraneous at first add crucial texture to this twenty-first century tale of human beings fumbling their way toward happiness. The writing is deft, but the casting brings it home. Hahn is a known comedic powerhouse, but she’s never had a more emotionally devastating moment than her flailing sidewalk breakdown in the aftermath of the couple’s latest fertility disappointment. Giamatti’s worked endless variations on the defeated middle-aged white man, but he can still find new, resonant notes to play when handed rich material like this. And Carter is absolutely winning as the child Richard and Rachel never intended to raise.
Jenkins may have gone for one denouement too many in wrapping up her film, but the final scene feels right. It’s likely they’re setting themselves up for another heartbreak, but this is who they are. They want a child of their own, and they’re going to drive themselves crazy trying to have one. They’re beautiful, big-hearted assholes that way.