Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 01, 2018 6:15 pm 
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A brutal and overly realistic satire of middle-class, middle-aged New Yorkers trying to have a baby

Critical response has been mostly positive to this 5 October Sundance-Netflix release, Tamara Jenkins' first since her 2007 The Savages. It concerns a very bourgeois New York intellectual couple entering middle age whose relationship is pushed to the edge by the writer wife's struggle to get pregnant via fertility treatments. Wider recognition of film may be limited, however, as Oswen Gleiberman suggested in his Variety review, for two reasons: Netflix ownership may make its theatrical life very limited, and people who have not struggled with fertility treatments to have a child may have trouble relating.

I have not, and I did have some trouble. Jenkins seemed to pump up the shocks - or was it just that the reverb of the overloud sound in the theater distorted every crinkled paper bag or line of dialogue? The underlining was unnecessary. The couple's sufferings were intense enough. The result was to turn a narrative already hovering between the Kafkaesque and the deadly dull into a horror movie. All the while one knows it's meant to be funny, and sometimes there are indeed laughs. But every moment is so belabored, Jenkins lacks the slightest lightness of touch. She reportedly took ten years to bring this movie to fruition - another prolonged, abortive effort like the one depicted. Though deeply informed on its subject, Jenkins' film just seems to meander on and on. It might have worked better as a mini-series.

This has been compared to Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (NYFF 2005), likewise a "very New York" story much celebrated at a New York Film Festival. Dave Erlich praised this film in his Sundance Indiewire review for not dwelling on intellectual snobbism in depicting its New York intellectual couple despite their accomplishments and their hip East Village dwelling. So what? The Squid and the Whale may be as self-satisfied as Jeff Daniels' smug writer father trumped by his ex Laura Linney and the awkwardness may outweigh the laughs, but Baumbach's film had broader implications than this one.

As the story begins, in medias res, 41-year-old Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, mostly appealing) and 47-year-old Richard (Paul Giamatti, serviceable as ever) are undergoing a procedure at a Manhattan fertility clinic where he masturbates and the resulting sperm is transferred to her by medical technicians. He is shown pornography he doesn't respond to, and later it turns out he has ejaculated but produced no sperm. He has only one testicle. They look into adoption, and at the same time pursue what medical experts say is their only remaining option of having a child that's genetically in part their own. That is using the host egg of a young woman that's then impregnated with Richard's sperm and transferred to Rachel's uterus to be raised to term. But the egg won't be hers, and Rachel doesn't like this idea. All these things require painful and expensive shots.

A new development arrives when Rachel and Richard unexpectedly take in a step relative's daughter who has withdrawn from college, Sadie (Kayli Carter). Sadie brings a welcome note of energy and enthusiasm, and so does the actress. Sadie wants to live in New York and her hosts soon arrive upon the idea that the fertilized egg could be hers, an idea she readily - no doubt too readily - takes to. After much hesitation and awkwardness and the shocked opposition of Sadie's mother, they go ahead with this, with Sadie too now receiving the painful and expensive shots. But as has been obvious for some time, this couple is on a highway to nowhere, and the ending is unsatisfying. While this film clearly appealed to the friendly New York Film Festival debut audience, its downbeat aspects, as well as a focus on white privilege that now feels passé, will make it a long slog for many.

Private Life, 127 mins., which debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, also showed 1 Oct. in the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. It opens in US theaters 5 Oct. 2018 (at IFC Center, NYC) and simultaneously on the Internet (Netflix). Metascore 83.

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