It’s deeply gratifying to see Tamara Jenkins return to the director’s chair with the infertility dramedy “Private Life,” 10 long years after her bittersweet, funny and wise screenplay for “The Savages” earned the filmmaker an Oscar nomination. Like that 2007 film — which also garnered Laura Linney an acting nod for her performance as one of two siblings coping with a dying parent — “Private Life” mines Jenkins’s life experience: specifically, her efforts to have a baby with her husband, Jim Taylor (the screenwriting partner of Alexander Payne). Her only previous feature, 1998’s “Slums of Beverly Hills,” was also semi-autobiographical, loosely inspired by the director’s teenage years living in the low-rent fringes of Beverly Hills.
Starring Kathryn Hahn as Rachel, a successful 40-ish writer, and Paul Giamatti as her slightly older husband, Richard, a former theater director who now manages an artisanal pickle company in a rapidly gentrifying New York City, the new film centers on Rachel and Richard’s struggle to have a child. (That struggle bounces, with gentle yet sharply observant humor, from in vitro fertilization to adoption inquiries to the use of a donor egg.)
The comedy, while unflinchingly honest and prone to bandying about such terms as “intracytoplasmic sperm injection” and “follitropin,” is never really about technology, though. Rather, and to its great credit, it’s always about the people involved.
In addition to the at times achingly vulnerable performances by Hahn and Giamatti, “Private Life” also includes indelible turns by such supporting actors as Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Richard and Rachel’s couples counselor; Denis O’Hare as Rachel’s fertility doctor, who plays prog rock while giving gynecological exams; and John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon as Richard’s bickering brother and sister-in-law. Newcomer Kayli Carter makes perhaps the deepest impression as Richard and Rachel’s niece, Sadie, who moves in with the film’s protagonists after dropping out of Bard College and who comes to play an unexpectedly central role in their efforts to conceive.
The title “Private Life” refers, ironically, to the loss of privacy when two people’s most intimate relationship is, by necessity, opened up to the involvement of others — for reasons that are not just medical but financial, psychological and, in the most contemporary sense of the word, social. (A co-worker of Richard’s accidentally glimpses a photo of Rachel’s hormone-swollen breasts after she texts him the photo at work.)
At the same time, Jenkins never forgets that the focus of this story needs to be on private, one-on-one relationships. Even as her screenplay cheekily name-checks such pop-culture touchstones as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Rosemary’s Baby” — shorthand for what are too often women’s roles as commodities in the patriarchy — “Private Life” is never glibly political. When Richard cracks that he feels like he’s in a Wendy Wasserstein play, it’s funny because he isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. “Private Life” earns its laughs, to be sure. But more important, it earns the tears of recognition that fall, gently and warmly, between the yuks.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema; also available via Netflix streaming. Contains strong sexual material, some graphic nudity and strong language. 127 minutes.