It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’s last film, during which time the trends in indie cinema have gradually shifted. The boon of comedies about white middle-class late baby boomers and early Gen Xers working through midlife crises (typified by films like Sideways, The Squid and the Whale, and Jenkins’s own The Savages) has lost much of its appeal, making way for films open to a more diverse range of experiences. But it’s not just because Private Life is yet another film about the woes of narcissistic, cynical, fortysomethings that it feels so much like a regression. It’s because everything from its verbose, pseudo-intellectual, reference-littered script to its wide shots of people sitting, facing the camera, and looking very sad makes Private Life feel like a particular kind of outdated bougie Sundance film.
Like The Savages, Private Life presents a potentially intriguing concept in its exploration of the bureaucracy of the private health industry, and the psychological toll it takes on those who have to navigate it. The Savages did this on a smaller scale, through its sardonic rendering of life at a nursing home in Buffalo, New York. But here, Jenkins devotes much of her film’s runtime to the various procedures performed inside a Manhattan fertility clinic, where Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel Grimes (Kathryn Hahn) return, repeatedly, in a seemingly endless effort to conceive.
Instead of offering a probing, nuanced view of the burgeoning technologies and sciences involved in this relatively new outgrowth of the OBGYN industry, though, Jenkins uses her setting as fodder for lame and discomfiting physical comedy—like the scene in which Richard, trying to adjust the volume on a porn-blaring TV set in a private viewing area at the facility, waddles across the room with his pants around his ankles and tissue paper stuck to his ass. It’s not as if Jenkins is meaning to explicitly critique fertility clinics either—which would have at least been provocative. Nothing that intentioned is going on here: The in vitro fertilization struggle is just window dressing for a familiar comedic drama about a couple in their 40s going through middle-aged panic.
That wouldn’t be such a problem if said couple weren’t also so immediately familiar—and familiarly obnoxious. Richard is a retired theater director and Rachel is a playwright, they’re both neurotic (but especially Rachel, since she’s the one taking hormone shots), and you better believe their arguments feature withering references to Wendy Wasserstein in front of full-to-bursting bookshelves. Richard in particular is prone to asinine displays of New York love-hate fetishism, with a healthy dose of condescension, as when he tries to show his age by announcing he’s from a time when “The Village Voice was considered relevant.” Richard’s most tone-deaf moment, though, comes when his twentysomething step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), upon arriving at her aunt and uncle’s Alphabet City apartment, looks around the neighborhood, spies graffiti, and wonders why the area hasn’t been “gentrified,” to which Richard responds, dryly, “I guess they forgot about our corner.”
So many other indie directors that made their names with critical and audience hits in the 2000s have since directed films that situate them as being interested in more than just the foibles and quirks of slighted middle-aged intellectuals, or ornery old people at odds with the changes in their modern world. With last year’s Downsizing, Alexander Payne made a film that’s identifiable as his own, while at the same time showing his willingness to expand conceptual and sociocultural interests to a range of issues, from environmentalism to globalization to class consciousness. Private Life, especially early on, feels like it could be doing something similar, through its portrayal of an anatomical future-science—but as reality, rather than science fiction. Unfortunately, Jenkins never musters the effort to expand the scope of her narrative, and instead opts to make a film strikingly similar to The Savages—down to the same strained mix of arch cynicism and earnest sentimentality, weak institutional critique, and obliviously unapologetic white privilege.