‘Private Life’ and the Twilight of the X Generation

Frustrated Creatives, Trying To Reproduce Too Late

I saw the Private Life movie, now streaming on Netflix. It’s the first film in more than a decade from Tamara Jenkins, a phrase that must mean something to someone somewhere. I don’t say that to diminish Tamara Jenkins, but she’s an indie Gen-X auteur, a species of human forgotten by history. That sense of fading relevance pervades this subtle, wistful, and affecting film.

Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn break out all the acting stops to play a hipster Lower East Side couple who put off getting pregnant until it’s too late. Once they made great art, or at least tried. Now they’re the financially-taxed IVF subjects of the wittily named Dr. Dordick, who subjects them to all sort of of humiliating procedures. Cruel female Internet pranksters baby-catfish them. Life has reached its tipping point. They’re dissatisfied, exhausted, and broke.

PRIVATE LIFE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Tamara Jenkins
Written by: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Molly Shannon, Kayli Carter
Running time: 123 min.

The movie also substantially features Kayli Carter as Giamatti’s step-niece Sadie. She wonderfully channels a young Natasha Lyonne, who starred in Jenkins’ biggest success, 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills. Molly Shannon delivers a nice performance too, as a suburban mom struggling with “the change.”

But most of the screen time belongs to Giamatti and Hahn. Now, if Paul Giamatti is 47, as he claims in the movie, then I get to be 37. He looks like an old cheese left on the counter too long. He’d be incontinent by the time that baby reached grade school. Hahn, a bit younger in the movie and in real life, seems a bit more plausible as a woman who waited too long to have a kid.

But beyond their baby struggles, I found myself obsessing on their total cultural irrelevance. They live in a crummy rent-controlled apartment in the East Village that must have seemed awesome in 1993. Their glorious theatrical careers have faded. All they have are yellowed Village Voice reviews of their work. Hahn does publish a novel called “Women’s Studies.” But the hilariously bad cover she gets, of a linen-clad woman standing in a field of purple flowers, portends commercial failure. Giamatti has given up hope entirely and now makes artisanal pickles and drops dated Wendy Wasserstein references. The Bonfire Of The Vanities sits prominently among the huge pile of books tumbled around their headboard. These, like the name Dr. Dordick,  are deliberate directorial choices. It’s been a long time since these people did or said anything relevant.

We all had our youthful artistic ambitions, once upon a time. At least the people I knew did. And some of us, myself included, actually achieved some of those ambitions. But at what cost, and why? Gen-X had children. If they didn’t, the high schools would be empty right now. But most of us had fewer children because we wanted to pursue our dreams. Now that digital society has bypassed our radical analog ambitions, no one gives a shit. We’re left, like Giamatti and Hahn’s characters, sitting and waiting, hoping it all still works out.

This moving and semi-realistic picture, relevant to possibly 234,000 people on the planet, beautifully captures that reality. We’re still here, but no one wants to entertain us.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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