Private Life ★★★½

A film about the exhausting path to scientifically aided conception, "Private Life" is full of moments that are aching and acerbic and often in most of the right ways. "They're like compulsive gamblers," it's said of Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn's characters - both a great line for the subject matter of pot-commitment to pregnancy and the unspoken (between them) feeling that this is the last hand they have to play with each other to continue their coexistence. The title cards that come up ("The Retrieval," "The Transfer") are neither pretentious nor ostentatious - just emblematic of the weight the characters give them.

It's here that "Private Life" makes its smartest play - abandoning easy laughs about pregnancy's cult of personality in which other movies might luxuriate. Instead, this is their self-imposed exile to a perpetually shifting world of exhausting, endless activities to conceive (all except the old-fashioned way, which comes up at a pivotal moment). Genetically minded conception must feel like trying on dozens of outfits in front of everyone you know, all weighing in loudly and ceaselessly, and "Private Life" captures that albatross of tension - how all the conversations open with self-deprecating prologues and how it comes to subsume every other aspect of your identity.

It's also a breakout dramatic role for Hahn, which she nails with the right amount of drive and despondency, and Giamatti's best turn since "Win/Win" suffused as it is with his vintage sad-sack slapstick and existential anguish. We come to learn just where this long-running obsession has left them both, to the point where the camera feels like it's trying to give them their space even when they won't allow it. More than in the so-so "The Savages," Jenkins' cringe-comedy timing has some immaculate moments, particularly in a passive-aggressive profession of platitudes at a Thanksgiving meal; even the dog actors are tops.

Although it teases out the little tells to make the final shot land, "Private Life" is not a few drawbacks. It's overlong by way of Tamara Jenkins building up a decade's worth of ideas to dramatize, a bit too judgmental about the wrong characters and dismissive of a supporting character as much more than part of the leads' plan. There's a moment at the end with her intended either as hope or delusion, but Jenkins has done nothing to set us up to feel either way. Still, it's an admirable work of grace and complexity that skillfully swings between pith and poignancy.