In “Private Life,” writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ long-gestating third feature, a couple (Kathryn Hahn as Rachel and Paul Giamatti as Richard) sees its marriage tested by the trial of assisted reproduction. It’s a sometimes-uncomfortably intimate peek into a closed-door cycle of hopes and pills and needles — and the damage done. And it’s a comedy, more or less.
“What’s so moving to me is it isn’t really about the baby,” says Hahn. “I never really pictured a little pink newborn, never smelled the baby powder, never saw the crib in my mind. And that was, like, the saddest thing to me. It was about this journey they were on together, ‘The Baby Project.’ ”
The 40-somethings are in the slow-motion act of realizing their dream of being parents might not be attainable after all.
“All of a sudden, there’s a shadow. The sunset is starting to happen,” says the actress, seated beside Jenkins.
“It’s a bummer that our chief money-making years kind of line up with our most fertile. We can freeze our eggs, all these medical options that are available to us, and it doesn’t guarantee anything and it costs a ton of money,” Hahn says, with a quiet laugh. “And no one is there to say, ‘Stop,’ so you get on this roller coaster with no ending.”
Giamatti has pointed out similarities of the story to the non-resolution of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: Even if the couple should get “the thing,” it’s ultimately “not the thing” — life goes on, the wheels keep turning. In the meantime, they wait and suffer.
Jenkins says, “It consumes them. Infertility threatens marriages in an intense way, and it undoes people. It seemed like a good way to study human behavior.”
Jenkins’ previous studies of human behavior, the acclaimed “Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998) and “The Savages” (2007), both drew on her experiences. “Private Life,” too, had its seeds in her life, having gone through the process herself. She points out “stories about couples struggling to conceive are ancient. It’s in the Bible. Edward Albee wrote the most amazing one, called ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ But the advent of artificial reproduction technology makes it different.”
Hahn’s Rachel is complex: intelligent, desperate, unreasonable, compassionate. It was a role the actress desperately wanted (she says, on visiting Jenkins’ office, she tried to get her “scent all over”). Casual observers might not see her as a slam dunk for such a demanding role, associating her with extreme comic turns in the likes of “Anchorman,” “Bad Moms” and “Bad Words.”
“I sort of saw her upside-down,” says Jenkins. “I watched ‘Transparent,’ and I hadn’t seen the big comedies. I thought her performance in ‘Transparent’ was beautiful. So then I went from her very naturalistic, still kind of performance to the wild and unhinged stuff.”
Hahn asks, “The Chrysler commercials?”
“The crazy Chrysler commercial,” Jenkins acknowledges. “I like comic actors. I’m attracted to actors who can straddle — I always call it the ‘shimmer’ the shimmer between comedy and drama. There’s a shaky in-between place. That’s where Kathryn lives, and Paul lives. I don’t know how conscious it is. It’s a point of view. I felt like her point of view as a human being matched the material, also.”
The plot involves the couple enlisting a step-relative in the process, but Hahn and Giamatti’s relationship is the movie. Saying it’s weird to talk about Rachel without Giamatti, Hahn pulls up an empty chair for the not-present actor.
Their joint performance has a kind of “lived-in” quality that fits right in with their cluttered New York apartment set, its objects taken from the homes of the director and set designer. Many such details came from Jenkins’ experience.
“The Poland Spring bottle they turn into the receptacle … It had to be that jerry-rigged sharps container, and there had to be a bunch of needles in it.” Her personal story was different, but she “knew the terrain very well and the emotional core of it.
“I started there, but then it blooms, it takes on a life of its own and becomes invention. I got things from friends, but I definitely had my husband inject intramuscular needles into my ass,” she says, laughing, in reference to the opening scene.
She says the specificity of the film’s world allowed her to skip exposition.
“You’re dropped into the middle of the story. Like ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ You’re not spoon-fed, ‘Oh, my boyfriend needs a sex-change operation.’ You’re wondering what’s driving them. They certainly don’t know how to rob a bank. You’re catching up, you’re tossed in the swirl of it. I kept saying, ‘This is a bank robbery, but it’s IVF!’ ”
Hahn grins and laughs with a quiet snort: “If you like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and you like Beckett …”