The contemporary successor to the grueling 1970s vacation slide show (“And here’s Norman and I at the Grand Canyon!”) might be the IVF discussion. In every upscale area where middle-class couples gather over drinks, at any moment the discussion is liable to turn to the subject of an agonized struggle to start a family.
Private Life, which after debuting at the New York Film Festival will appear in theaters and on Netflix October 4, is the movie version: We begin with a reclining 41-year-old woman (Kathryn Hahn) getting a painful injection in the gluteus maximus from her anxious husband (Paul Giamatti). And we’re off: two hours of squabbling, waiting in doctor’s offices, feet in stirrups, taking vitamins, etc., etc. Hahn’s Rachel and Giamatti’s Richard are trying to get a child any way they can, also simultaneously pursuing adoption and seeking an egg donor, the latter producing a traumatic episode in which a young woman apparently eager to help them disappears without explanation after leading them on for some time. All of this is troubling to sit through but doesn’t shed much light. I can think of two groups of people who won’t want to see this movie: those who have undergone the process of in vitro fertilization and those who haven’t. If you’ve been through the agony, why would you want to relive it? If you haven’t been through it, why would you care?
So who is the movie for, then? Pretty much solely for the person who made it. It is unsurprising to learn that its writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, underwent IVF treatments, which would explain the loose, memoir-ish, and-then-this-happened format. The movie serves as a pretty good example of what can happen to even an accomplished screenwriter (Jenkins wrote Slums of Beverly Hills and got an Oscar nomination for The Savages) who can’t quite achieve separation from her subject. Basic imperatives of screenwriting are discarded, by which I mean this isn’t a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more of a jumble of thoughts being sketched out over a jug of sangria.
The film is saturated with cinéma vérité detail — Hahn and Giamatti look haggard, ragged, and disheveled, and their book-strewn shambles of an apartment looks like an actual New York City flat instead of the usual idealized, uncluttered Hollywood recreations — but what’s most interesting about it is the stuff that is most obviously falsified. Rachel is a literary novelist who has been published in The New Yorker and won prestigious fellowships at Yaddo, while Richard is an acclaimed off-Broadway theater director. There isn’t a lot of money in these pursuits, which is why the New York City arts scene is teeming with independently wealthy people who don’t really need the cash, because they inherited it. Rarely do they live in such dismal straits as the couple in the movie. Jenkins herself is married to Jim Taylor, one of the most successful screenwriters working today and a winner of an Academy Award for Sideways. His other credits include Jurassic Park III, Election, and Downsizing. Taylor is the kind of guy who can make more money on a three-week rewriting gig than most people make in a year. Yet Jenkins dials down her family’s socioeconomic status about six notches to try to make Rachel and Richard more sympathetic.
I mention all this because I find it fascinating how taboos have shifted in American life: Jenkins is a symbol of our age in that she’s eager to delve into the most intimate details of sexual and reproductive life. When it comes to income, though, she’s as tight-lipped as a Park Avenue matron. After an entire generation of oversharing on matters bodily, hearing about people’s sex-related problems has gone a bit stale. Jenkins’s movie tries to add some spice by adding a few screenwriterly zingers, but these mostly come across as hopelessly cutesy. (“We wanted to ask you about your eggs,” Richard says to a young, female potential donor. “Scrambled is good,” replies the woman.) Jenkins’s plot twists, likewise, all wind up being dead ends. Frustrating to endure, no doubt, but frustration is not an emotion I seek out when I go to the movies. For all of the heartache going on in Private Life, as a narrative journey it winds up traveling approximately a quarter of an inch.