Family Planning (Film Review: “Private Life”)


Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn shine as an intellectual, 40-something couple in Manhattan whose struggles with infertility have reached the point of desperation, until an egg donor materializes in the form of their hero-worshiping niece. What could possibly go wrong?

SnapShot Plot

Private Life is a film that – through wit, humor and most of all, empathy – rips the band-aid off all the sentimentalized and saccharin treatments of infertility in popular entertainment. Meet Rachel and Richard, an intellectual downtown couple whose youthful pursuit of meaningful lives in the Arts has apparently placed them behind the proverbial eight-ball of breeding.  For the past few years, they’ve pretty much exhausted all their options and their finances, and while half-hardheartedly pursuing the adoption angle they’re now considering egg donation, something they had always sworn would never be on the table. Richard tries to ‘sell it’ to an angry Rachel, who reels at the notion of putting a strange woman’s body part into her uterus, by telling her,”Look at the positives; you’d get to carry the baby.” To which she retorts, “Oh, whoop-de-doo!, what does that make me, the BellHop?!”

But of course, their continuing desperation prevails and one more red line in the sand is crossed as they find themselves trolling donor websites and spending more and more money in the achingly sad and frustrating pursuit to simply be parents. Until the day when their young step-niece, Sadie (exquisitely portrayed by Kayli Carter) comes to ‘crash’ with them in their middle-age bohemian world while she figures out if she’s got what it takes to be a writer. Sadie is a bright and articulate young woman with a keen observational talent who worships the very ground Rachel and Richard walk upon; indeed her ideal in life would be to emulate them in every way.

She’s the closest thing to a daughter that they have. She would be the PERFECT donor. Morals aside, could they actually ask this of her? Is this yet another red line they are about to cross?



Parting Shot

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, Private Life can, in a way, be seen as a companion piece to her last film of 11 years ago, The Savages (starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the wonderful Laura Linney) about an adult brother and sister struggling to cope with their estranged father’s final days. Both films navigate the winding, pothole ridden roads of modern-day family life, as negotiated by quintessentially urbane New Yorkers whose very articulateness often stands in the way of looking life squarely in the eye. And with Private Life, the writing combines with two exceptionally grounded and finely nuanced performances by Giamatti and Hahn to achieve the kind of truth-telling of the interior Aha! moments in which you find yourself feeling every tug of elation and frustration along with these characters.

So often throughout the movie, we find ourselves wondering it it’s all worth it, or if the mystique of parenthood has cast its own spell on an entire generation of Baby Boomers told to hold off on procreating while pursuing loftier goals, in other words that they could have it all later in life. Through the eyes of Sadie’s parents (well captured by Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch) we see Rachel and Richard as fertility-challenged yet stubbornly refusing to accept their lot in life; and yet we see the condescension in that outsider estimation. The film offers no easy answers, and ends on an intriguingly ambiguous note, which seemed close to perfect.

The adage, “Man Makes Plans & God Laughs” comes to mind more than once as we watch Rachel and Richard go down for the count, then stagger up on shaky legs, punch drunk but still yearning for their plus 1 that will feel like family.

Private Life is presently streaming on Netflix.

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YouTube Trailer:

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