Private Life

Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn star in "Private Life."

As someone on social media pointed out recently, Netflix is classifying its new movie “Private Life” as a “hidden gem” on its site.

Which is a little galling, given that Netflix is the one hiding it. It premiered last Friday, but I couldn’t find a link to it anywhere on the home page, eventually having to call up the search bar to hunt it down.

Which is frustrating, because for indie movie fans “Private Life” is something of an event. It’s from writer-director Tamara Jenkins, who tends to make only one movie every decade or so. 2007's “The Savages” and 1997's “The Slums of Beverly Hills” showcased Jenkins’ gift for making wonderful films that walk the tightrope between comedy and drama, with richly drawn, complex characters. “The Savages” featured Laura Linney and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as estranged siblings who come together when their father goes into hospice.

If “The Savages” found poignancy and humor at facing the end of life, “Private Life” mines the same emotional territory while looking at the beginning of life. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn play Richard and Rachel, a middle-aged New York couple who have been trying for years to have a baby, without success.

Desperate, they try everything — in vitro fertilization, adoption, finding a donor egg — and Jenkins shows how their lives are re-ordered around this quest, both physically and emotionally. Jenkins finds plenty of funny insights into the process (“It’s like an EBay for ova,” Rachel mutters while browsing a website for egg donors).

But she doesn’t shy away from the stress and the heartbreak of the process, as Richard and Rachel try and fail and keep soldiering on, hoping against hope. Their chatty doctor (Denis O’Hare) tries to buck up their spirits, telling them, “All it takes is one good egg.” But the flip side to that encouragement feels like a criticism — how come they can’t find one good egg? The couple feels their intimate lives have become subject to public scrutiny, not only from doctors but from their family and friends, who question why they continue trying. 

Hahn is a deservedly busy character actor, and she finally gets a knockout lead role, embodying all of Rachel’s frustration and prickly vulnerability. And this is Giamatti’s best role since “Sideways,” playing a devoted husband who is being slowly wrung out by the humiliating, protracted process. Jenkins’ screenplay is so sharp and honest that we feel no guarantee that there’ll be a happy ending for this couple, but we’re so emotionally invested in their struggle that we stick with them to the end.

Kayli Carter is effervescent as Sadie, the step-niece of the couple who moves in with them and becomes a sort of surrogate daughter. This is a movie where there are no real villains (not even Molly Shannon as Sadie’s mother, jealous of the bond Sadie has with Richard and Rachel), just a group of flawed, compelling people trying their best to love each other. “Private Life” is well worth seeking out.

Also on streaming: “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner returns to television with the new Amazon Prime series “The Romanoffs,” premiering Friday. The show is an anthology series, with each movie-length episode focusing on different characters, all of whom think they are descendants of the Russian royal family. In an unusual move for Amazon, which usually drops entire seasons at once, only two episodes are premiering this week with a new one each week after that.

Amazon also released the third season of its alternative-history series “The Man in the High Castle” over the weekend. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, the show takes place in an alternate 1960s America where the Germans and Japanese won World War II and carved up the country. The third season reportedly plays up the sci-fi elements of the show and visits alternate historical timelines.

When he’s not making Jason Bourne movies, director Paul Greengrass is known for making cinema verite recreations of tragic historical events like “United 93.” His latest is “22 July,” premiering Wednesday, which recreates a horrific event in 2011 when a Norwegian white supremacist killed 69 people on an isolated island. Early reviews say the film focuses more on the survivors and the aftereffects of the rampage.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.