Rachel is a writer whose new novel is about to be published. Her husband, Richard, used to run an experimental theater and now, without undue sourness, runs an artisanal pickle company. The couple live in a cluttered, cozy apartment on an East Village block not yet overrun by money. They are literate, witty people (played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) who might rather be smart than nice but are generally pretty nice anyway, even to each other. Their mutual prickliness is a sign of long intimacy, as if they were two cut-to-match pieces of sandpaper. Over the years of their relationship — he’s 47, she’s about a half-decade younger — neither one has been too badly scraped up or smoothed out by the other.
It’s a happy marriage, in other words, though one that is touched with midlife melancholy. Contentment and disappointment sit so close together on the spectrum of shared experience that it can be hard to tell one from the other. The one thing that’s missing from Rachel and Richard’s lives — the pursuit of which gives “Private Life,” Tamara Jenkins’s piquant and perfect new comedy, its shape and momentum — is a baby.
A heartbreaking adoption near miss lies in the recent past, and they are in the midst of a long, fertility-treatment roller-coaster ride when we first meet them. Literally in the midst: The opening scene is of Richard administering an injection to Rachel’s backside. But while “Private Life” has funny and heartfelt insights (as well as some potentially useful information) on modern technologically assisted reproduction and its discontents, the movie is not only or even primarily about fruitless efforts to multiply. Someone once said that life is what happens while you’re making other plans. This movie is about the plans that happen while you’re trying to make another life.
Rachel and Richard are not the only household in the picture. Richard has a brother named Charlie (John Carroll Lynch), a prosperous periodontist who lives in the suburbs with his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), and their teenage daughter, Charlotte (Emily Robinson). Charlotte has a half sister, Sadie (Kayli Carter) — biologically unrelated to Richard or Rachel — who is adrift and unhappy at 25, trying to finish college and figure out how to live for her art.
Ms. Jenkins, whose previous features include “The Savages” and “Slums of Beverly Hills,” patiently assembles a structure suited either to melodrama or farce. Sadie moves in with Rachel and Richard, promoting them from cool aunt and uncle to idealized surrogate parents. It’s not spoiling much to say that they eventually see in her the potential for a different kind of surrogacy, but the story plays out in wonderfully (and sometimes appallingly) surprising ways. Though it is poignant and funny in nearly equal measure, the most remarkable aspect of “Private Life” may be its lack of noticeable exaggeration. Ms. Jenkins is working at the scale of life, with the confidence that the ordinary, if viewed from the right angle, will provide enough drama and humor to sustain our interest.
In this regard, “Private Life” feels almost like a French movie, though its kinship with other recent New York tales — Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” Ira Sachs’s “Love Is Strange,” some episodes of “Girls” and “High Maintenance” — is obvious enough. Ms. Jenkins revels in the specificity of the characters, in their tastes and habits and imperfections, without bloating any of them into representative or stereotypical figures. It would have been easy to overdo Richard’s grouchiness, Rachel’s volatility or Sadie’s blithe, oversharing sense of entitlement, or to turn Charlie and Cynthia into cartoons of blundering dadness and high-flying helicopter maternalism.
But if everyone is a little bit ridiculous, nobody is set up to be mocked. The comedy, like the pathos, comes from recognition, and not in a narrowly sociological sense. These are just people, after all.
These are some amazing actors, in other words. You may think you have seen all of Mr. Giamatti’s variations on frustrated masculinity — or that this role lands too close to his bitter sweet spot — but Richard’s slumped posture, his nervous energy, his swerves from thin-skinned exasperation to stoical decency made me think I had either discovered a new planet or accidentally walked past a mirror. Ms. Hahn, one of popular culture’s not-so-secret weapons (from “Our Idiot Brother” to “Transparent” to “I Love Dick”), is a vivid performer and also an exquisitely subtle one. Rachel rattles off a lot of the script’s best jokes, but her eyes, especially when she’s looking at Sadie, tell an almost unspeakably complex story of affection, envy, reluctance and regret.
Ms. Carter, a less familiar presence, in some ways tackles the biggest challenge. Sadie is, at least potentially, a foil, a rival, the object of generational resentment and a symbol of hope (or despair) for the future. That’s a lot of baggage for a young person to handle, and Sadie does so partly by ignoring it altogether. She doesn’t regard herself as a supporting character in her aunt and uncle’s narrative. She’s the protagonist of her own movie, as Cynthia and Charlie are of theirs. An equally interesting movie — about empty nesting rather than incubation — could have focused on their marriage.
Not that I would want anything different about “Private Life,” even as I often found myself wishing that everyone in it would take it easier on themselves and one another. Though if they did, it wouldn’t really be life, and it wouldn’t be art either. The joy of this film is how completely it’s both.
Rated R. Trying to make a baby and other grown-up stuff. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.