How far would you go to conceive a child? Until the effort threatens the marriage it’s meant to save? “Private Life” is a modern comedy-drama in the Woody Allen-Noah Baumbach mold — urban intellectuals talking their lives in circles — but what keeps it from being a live-action New Yorker cartoon is the heart beating away in the script and the performances. At over two hours, it’s long but it’s true.
And, yes, Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn seem born to their roles, Lower Manhattan churchmice in the failing cultural economy. Richard is a theater director reduced to selling pickles, Rachel is a writer of short stories, and when “Private Life” opens they’re banging their heads against a series of IVF treatments. A child, they believe, would save them, and maybe it would.
In a sense, a child does save them: Sadie (Kayli Carter), the 25-year-old perpetual college student who is Richard’s step-niece. Carter, who gives a performance that is every bit the equal of her costars’, has a face that carries the woes of someone twice her age. Sadie is easily bruised by the world and delighted to move in with her hipster uncle and aunt.
Would that delight extend to allowing her eggs to be used by the couple in having a baby? “Private Life” — a Netflix film-festival pickup getting a quick theatrical run on top of its streaming premiere — is about the ways need and modern technology can combine to fool us into stepping over lines we’d never even known were there. But that makes it sound like an issue drama when it’s specifically about the messes human beings make when operating with the best of intentions.
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages,” “Slums of Beverly Hills”) has a delicate, wry touch with the dialogue, and her cast volleys it back and forth beautifully. Giamatti’s Richard is a decent man who’s about ready to claim defeat; it’s one of the actor’s most quietly empathetic performances. By contrast, Hahn is an actress who specializes in being difficult to take, often gloriously, as in the Amazon series “I Love Dick.” Rachel is at times genuinely maddening, but only because she’s so genuinely saddened about where life seems to be beaching her.
Factor in Sadie on the futon, and “Private Life” inscribes a circle with three points, drawn with intimate comic rue by Jenkins. Outside that circle, we’re allowed to be as appalled as Sadie’s mother, Cynthia (Molly Shannon, carefully backing the character away from caricature), or as fretful as stepfather Charlie (John Carroll Lynch). Inside, time slows down and we’re invited to sort out our feelings regarding Sadie’s immaturity and generosity of spirit, Rachel’s selfishness and heart, Richard’s fearfulness and strength.
“Private Life” feels like it goes on at least half an act too long, but that may simply be a result of Jenkins’s attention to emotional detail and her reluctance to let these characters go. I’m not saying a man wouldn’t or couldn’t have made this movie. But I do think this particular filmmaker notices things that others, including many men, might have missed: the tiny interactions and reverberations that connect and complete us, and that turn us, somehow, into families.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Starring Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon. At Landmark Embassy Waltham. 127 minutes. R (strong sexual content, some graphic nudity, language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.