PARK CITY – There is a moment about halfway through Tamara Jenkins’ new drama “Private Life,” which debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Thursday night, where 25-year-old Sadie (Kayli Carter) makes an impromptu revelation during a Thanksgiving dinner with her family. The college dropout reveals that she’s decided to donate one of her eggs to her step uncle Richard (Paul Giamatti) and his infertile wife Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) who have spent years trying to get pregnant. Sadie’s controlling and sanctimonious mother Cynthia (Molly Shannon) goes apoplectic and her anger translates into a funny and, surprisingly, grounded argument between them. It’s a wonderfully staged sequence that gives the movie a burst of energy it sorely needed up until that point. Again, we’re at least halfway through the picture when this occurs and, frankly, that’s not a good thing.
“Private Life” begins with Rachel, a published writer who is dealing with the heartache of one failed vitro fertilization attempt after another. Her husband is a once celebrated playwright, who now runs a pickle company and is ever loyal to assisting Rachel in having a child. They both still live in the same rent stabilized apartment in a not-so gentrified part of Manhattan they’ve had for years as most of their funds have been sucked up by incredibly expensive in vitro procedures. They have tried adoption through agencies, social workers and even were catfished by a young woman they met on a website that allows pregnant women to contact couples willing to adopt. They go to one doctor appointment after another and another and another. And Jenkins shows all of it in almost excruciating detail (you’ll lose count how many times you witness Rachel get a shot in the bum to cycle her egg production). The filmmaker is clearly trying to make the point of how mentally agonizing and time consuming the process can be, but it’s so repetitive and so long that it all begins to take you out of the narrative (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 12 minutes with credits).
Best known for her previous films “The Savages” and “Slums of Beverly Hills,” Jenkins has a number of issues she wants to tackle with her latest endeavor such as a continuing debate over modern feminism, ageism and whether a successful career can be an adequate supplement for the lack of a family (and vice versa), among others. The good news is her skills as a filmmaker have never been so sharp. There isn’t one bad performance in the film and it’s her most accomplished work cinematically to date (Jenkins’ has always had a good eye). That being said, it seems to have all become too precious in the editing room as the same thematic point is frustratingly made again and again (and not to mention that one scene after another goes on longer than it should).
What keeps you from losing complete interest are the impressive turns from Hahn and Carter. The former is so consistently good that we may have reached the point where audiences and critics may simply be taking her talents for granted. On the other hand, Cater has a charisma that draws your attention to her in every scene she’s in. The relative newcomer also finds ways to give Sadie subtle nuance and depth when the character could easily have come across as stereotypical “millennial” in the wrong hands.
Shannon is given the rare opportunity to play another serious role after her superb dramatic work in “Other People” and makes Cynthia’s judgmental perspective actually sympathetic. Giamatti can do no wrong, but Jenkins stumbles trying to give his character a “what about me” moment toward the end of the film that feels completely unnecessary.
Jenkins has a vision and something interesting to say in “Private Life,” but it needs some serious editing to convey it succinctly.
A Netflix original film, “Private Life” should appear on the streaming service later this year. [C+]