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Review: Private Life (Tamara Jenkins)

Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn in Private Life

Styles, movements, vogues come and go in the arts and entertainment, evolving from and into one another, both shaping and reflecting the culture in which they are contextualized. Some are so short-lived as to be confined to a matter of mere weeks or months, while others linger so persistently as to permanently inform the whole breadth of that culture. There are those movements, though, that barely move - they lodge themselves alongside the rest of the art world's produce, ever serving the same audience, ever emerging from their same impulses. Since the early days of Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, and others of a similar ilk, the white, middle-class, north-east United States has seen itself represented on film in the same kinds of feature, same format, same purpose, only slightly varying standard. Tamara Jenkins' last feature, 2007's The Savages, was a gently caustic iteration of this style, and the work of an artist with something to say that was sufficiently singular as to avoid the then-developing Baumbachian timbre of so many movies since. Private Life, though still the work of an artist with a flair for cutting dialogue and vivid characterization, is anything but singular.

I rarely find myself hating movies like Private Life. Their intelligence and their devotion to accomplishing their objectives tend to be too robust to dismiss them entirely as the puffed-up trashbags of artsy-fartsy middle-class ennui that they most emphatically are nonetheless. And every time that Jenkins' scheme became too schematic, her plot too predictable, her characters too insufferable, her ideas too familiar, I found myself brought back from the brink of a most fulfilling loathing by a piquant quip, or even by Jenkins' sensitivity as both writer and director. It's too easy to write Jenkins off as just a writer herself - for all Private Life's aesthetic mundanity and narrative mediocrity, her subtle verve as a director is what allows her verbal prowess to shine through, and overcome some of the more shopworn notions that threaten to drag the whole movie down. See the delicacy with which she stages a vital, crushing moment in the plot whose significance won't become clear until later, or the misdirection of the opening shot - take that, Baumbach!

And yet I do wish that Jenkins would show a bit more ambition. Maybe this is all a woman can get financed in the entertainment industry today - a two-hour Girls for the girls who got married and grew up. But even The Savages, much as it may only have served as a minor variation on our white indie comedy theme, displayed considerably more incisiveness than here, its commitment to candour bolstered by bolder artistic intent. Indeed, Private Life makes some artistic missteps even in its modestness, including the sporadic development of certain supporting characters (John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon in particular, both on top form). Not that any of my complaints could possibly matter. This style of movie will endure whether financing dries up altogether or maintains its current buoyancy. This same audience possesses the same baffling thirst for the same banal content, and possesses too the resources to keep churning it out.

Image Credit: MovieStillsDB

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