Few things are more fulfilling for an avid filmgoer than seeing a great movie during the opening night at Sundance. “Private Life” is a great movie, an honest character piece that’s as heartfelt and funny as it is heartbreaking and brutal.
In this relationship drama, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are Richard and Rachel, a married couple in their 40s who desperately want to conceive a child. As they attempt to navigate through the tricky world of assisted reproduction, truths about their relationship are slowly revealed. And ultimately, as they turn to a family member for help, we eventually discover why they didn’t have children earlier on in their relationship.
“Private Life” was written and directed by the gifted Tamara Jenkins whose last film, “The Savages,” was released a decade ago. It’s so great to have her back, because as she demonstrated with that exceptional film, she shows a real knack for ringing humor and honesty out of the most serious and intimate of situations. She takes what appears as if it might be sitcom fodder and makes something raw and truthful out of it.
First of all, let me say how much I love, love, love Kathryn Hahn in this picture. Hahn often plays supporting characters (“Anchorman,” “The Visit”), but she’s front and center in “Private Life.” As the frustrated, anxiety-consumed Rachel, Hahn has created a character of tremendous depth and complexity. She’s funny, manic, vulnerable, and adorable in equal measure. Honestly, this is a towering performance made up of a wide range of emotions, and it’s a turn that probably would have earned her an Oscar nomination had this film come out a few weeks ago. As it stands, expect Hahn to be all over the awards circuit early next year, because this is a star-making turn.
The gifted Paul Giamatti is equally effective in an entirely different way. He brings that sort of “lovable schlub” persona we’ve seen from him in fantastic films like “Sideways,” but the way he internalizes his pain in this picture is masterful. The pain is there, but we only get glimpses of it. Beautifully understated in all the right ways.
Together, Hahn and Giamatti bring it in a big way. There’s arguing and disagreements to be sure, but no matter how bleak things appear and no matter the snarky and mean things these characters might say to one another, I never once doubted their love for each other. That’s a testament to these outstanding performances and to Jenkins for creating the kind of environment in which these gifted actors can do their thing.
Speaking of gifted actors, “Private Life” offers up a clinic in virtuoso ensemble acting. The stellar cast includes Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Dennis O’Hare, and a spunky and delightful Kayla Carter as Richard and Rachel’s loving niece.
“Private Life” delves into some pretty rough terrain and will be particularly relatable to folks who’ve dealt with the perils and pitfalls that come with fertility. Heartbreaking stuff, but again, honest. It’s a great exploration into relationships and family, too. Admittedly, this film is a little long, but oh, how I fell in love with these characters. Yes, the year is young, but “Private Life” is certainly the best film of the year thus far, and I’ll be really surprised if it doesn’t end up being one of my favorite pictures at Sundance 2018.