PRIVATE LIFE (2018, Tamara Jenkins)
A fantastic argument in favor of form over content. It proves that a movie can contain subject matter that I either have zero interest in sitting through, or world views I actively disagree with, and still be massively affecting because of how skillfully it is presented. What Jenkins has done with this funny, acerbic, deeply honest indie dramedy is create two believable, likable adults and put them and her audience through hell because none of us have any choice in the matter. Or do they?
I wouldn’t have expected a modern fertility comedy starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti to end up as a treatise on the Myth of Sisyphus, but by the time this couple is continuing their struggle for the Nth time, it becomes obvious that that’s the vision of the human condition Jenkins believes in, and it strikes home with a thunder. For a few specific reasons, I wasn’t exactly eager to watch a story about a couple in their 40s first going through IVF, then hunting for an egg donor, then sweating the egg donor’s retrieval, more IVF, more money down the drain, and painful scams by hillbilly young women serving as phony surrogates. (People I’m very close to shouldn’t even be reading this review let alone watch the movie). But with each passing scene of exacting composition, shrewd cutting, and swelling, multi-dimensional performances, it became clear I was watching something exceptional regardless.
Jenkins peppers her movie with a lot of striking, memorable dialogue, but she also knows when to be quiet and let images do the talking rather than take a This Is Us approach and deliver every bit of exposition through conversation. One great shot that tells us Sadie isn’t staying with Rachel and Richard anymore is just Richard silently deflating her air mattress. And of course that isn’t the only thing in the room being deflated. Another great touch is when Sadie is taking a psychological test to qualify her for being an egg donor, and they ask the woman a question: “Do you ever feel like smashing things?” Cut to Richard and his brother smashing a racquetball on the court. Here, Jenkins is (not so?) subtly showing that standards for women’s sanity are much higher than those for men, yet also puts everyone in the same boat. All in one cut. And in the long game, it’s amazing how Richard and Rachel’s fostering of Sadie mirrors all the stages of parenthood they hope to actually have, sped up and made metaphorical: feeding their young daughter, then having frank birds-and-bees talk, then sending her off on her first date, then taking her to college. It’s 18 years in 18 weeks, and when that all hits home by the end it’s almost too much to bear. And it makes the final sequence all that much more astounding.
Note: You can’t see this movie in theaters, because every screen is too busy showing cartoons and comic book franchise bullshit. In the ’90s this would have had a healthy theatrical run. In 2018 it was released on Netflix, proving furthermore, for better or worse, that modest-budgeted American stories for adults are finding their homes far more often on our television screens than in our theaters.