A Couple in Creative Crisis

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At one point in “Private Life” the soundtrack is graced by a Billie Holiday classic, “Getting Some Fun Out of Life.” Seldom has a song been used to more ironic effect. The middle-aged wife and husband at the center of the story aren’t having any fun at all. This difficult, formidably tough-minded black comedy by Tamara Jenkins is autobiographical, at least in its clinical details; you might guess as much early on from the intensity of the pain. It’s about trying to conceive through in vitro fertilization, while pursuing adoption as a fallback. The euphemism for the medical process is assisted reproduction, though that hardly hints at what the couple must endure. They find themselves trapped in a high-tech hell on earth until an unexpected source of life enters the picture.

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The stars are Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. She is Rachel, a writer; he is Richard, a director of minor-league theater. Like many professionals of their generation, they’ve postponed having children for the sake of their careers. Now, in their 40s, they’ve been hit with a double whammy—infertility that promises to be unyielding, at least in the normal course of events, and careers that have failed to thrive.

In other words, two people pursuing what may be a fantasy, and an expensive one, with ever more obsessive fervor. In Rachel the filmmaker has written—and directed—what seems to be an unsparing version of herself. Ms. Hahn is an exceptional comedian, yet there’s only so much she can do to soften the edges of her stridently neurotic character. In Richard Ms. Jenkins has created a role that fits Mr. Giamatti, who has always been great at comic gloom, like a glove that should have been one size larger. Richard, along with the movie as a whole, suffers from a surfeit of gloom until the plot takes its surprising turn and the tone, which has wavered between grimly and glibly funny, lightens quite delightfully under the influence of a young woman named Sadie, who is played by an endearing young actress named Kayli Carter.

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