The obsession of a couple wanting to have a baby is examined with a mix of pain and humor in “Private Life,” a main slate feature in the 56th New York Film Festival and now in commercial release. Written with wit and directed by Tamara Jenkins, the film is highlighted by superb cast members who skillfully capture the angst involved and the effect on a marriage and related relationships.
Why is it so important and defining to have a child? Rachel, a writer with a novel about to be published, is played by Kathryn Hahn, who communicates the desperation of a wife whose life begins to be defined by her total obsession with giving birth. Her husband, Richard, is played by Paul Giamatti, a businessman, who goes along with Rachel’s longings until the situation becomes stifling, resulting in an absence of sex between them. We see them living in a lower East Side Manhattan apartment, and Hahn and Giamatti make the couple painfully believable, including in situations colored with humor. Picture Richard, for example, in an isolated room and haplessly watching porn, which is supposed to stimulate his delivery of sperm for the couple’s attempt at in vitro fertilization.
They try everything. Richard’s can ejaculate but there is no effective sperm. Rachel turns out not to be fertile. They try the adoption route by answering surrogate ads, and that leads to a road trip and disappointment.
Richard has a niece by marriage, the 25-yeqr-old Sadie, who is at sea academically and trying to find her place in life. She is impressively played most sympathetically by the excellent Kayli Carter. The film takes a desperate new turn via the close relationship Richard and Rachel have with Sadie, who looks up to them and becomes sympathetic to their goal. As one might expect, that leads to complications with Sadie’s mother.
As I watched the toll on Rachel’s and Richard’s marriage, as fine as the acting is, I began to become impatient with this child-bearing obsession. In light of such an all-consuming desire, one might wonder that if Rachel and Richard ever managed to acquire a kid whether they would make good parents. One could envision their parental lives fraught with fresh anxieties.
The film is successful in the convincing manner that writer-director Jenkins focuses on the issue and prompts thoughts about what other couples may also be going through. Despite society’s current efforts to view women as emerging from the confines of traditional domesticity, “Private Life” suggests that in some, motherhood still defines a woman’s being and those who cannot achieve it may feel deprived and left out. In that sense this film is an engrossing and sometimes wry look at one couple’s symbolic struggle. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 5, 2018.