Comfort Viewing: Why I Love Anything With Kathryn Hahn

Hahn’s ability to so effectively communicate her private thoughts to the viewer places her in company with some of the writer’s favorite actors.

By Emily Brennan

So little is predictable these days — an achingly close election, a pandemic with an ever more obscure endpoint — that I have developed an intense appreciation for reliably wonderful things, like Mallomars and beech trees and Jesmyn Ward books.

Add to this list Kathryn Hahn’s face. You’ve seen this face in everything from silly comedies like “Bad Moms” and “We’re the Millers” to sexy Peak TV like “I Love Dick.” It’s an expressive, open face that slips easily into quirky characters like the randy sister-in-law in “Step Brothers.” But Hahn also excels in dramatic supporting roles, telegraphing the inner turmoil of the women she inhabits.

Take this scene from the Season 1 finale of “Transparent” (cue 12:04). Hahn plays Raquel, a gentle rabbi who is in love with Josh (Jay Duplass), the brother of Gaby Hoffmann’s Ali. The two women are covering mirrors at a shiva, per tradition. “I could not be happier,” Raquel beams, her brows upturned and earnest. But Ali is concerned, then pitying.

“I mean, I’m not saying he’s a sex addict or a love addict,” Ali says of Josh. “I don’t know, maybe he’s a love addict.” Stumbling upon this new twist of words — love addict — is so satisfying to Ali, she doesn’t look up to consider its implications for Raquel. But the camera switches to Hahn to tell us. Her face has a fragility now, her searching eyes cast inward.

Hahn gets all of 90 seconds to convey Raquel’s devastation to us, and she has to do this while also trying to conceal it from Ali. She pulls off this task quickly with that face of hers, registering subtle gradations of confusion, shame and hurt that only we, the viewers, seem to see.

This ability — to flash her private thoughts to us — places Hahn in company with some of my favorite actors, who displayed their skills most thrillingly in early supporting roles, making efficient use of their little screen time. I’m thinking of John Cazale in “The Godfather,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Boogie Nights,” Viola Davis in “Far From Heaven” and Brian Tyree Henry in “Atlanta.” Each of those performances felt like a secret revealed.

So as we ride out the uncertainty, here are three roles — two minor, one lead — in which Hahn puts her remarkable face to effective, dependable use.

‘Girls’

I first noticed Hahn in Season 1 of “Girls,” during a four-episode arc that left me asking, who is that? She is introduced as a harried yet vivacious working mother, who hired the young, beautiful Jessa (Jemima Kirke) as a babysitter. Hahn is a successful documentarian — someone Jessa might hope to become if she didn’t see aging as inherently sad. But in a later scene, Hahn’s careful smile shows she understands the insecurity that lies beneath Jessa’s cockiness; she had it once, too. And this one look gives you her character’s whole back story.

‘Revolutionary Road’

Now compare that depiction of an urbane, modern woman to Hahn’s role as a repressed 1950s housewife in “Revolutionary Road” (2008). Hahn has a minor part as Milly, who along with her husband, Shep (David Harbour), is entranced by the charming Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).

In a movie that tediously spells out subtext with a Sharpie — “We had another child to prove the first one wasn’t a mistake,” April later says to Frank — it is a blessing that Hahn and Harbour, playing ordinary suburbanites, are given few self-conscious lines and are left to, well, act their parts.

After the Wheelers announce they’re leaving Connecticut for Paris one evening, Shep and Milly are alone in their bedroom, dressing in elegant, seemingly iron-pressed pajamas. Shep is obviously infatuated with April, so his agitation here is logical. But why does Milly quickly break into tears? Is she in love with Frank or April or the idea of them? “It’s nothing,” Milly says as Shep ineptly consoles her.

Hahn plays the scene ambiguously, but one thing is clear: Milly wants to keep her anguish hidden from her husband. Again, it feels as if Hahn is whispering this secret to only us.

‘Private Life’

By the time Hahn got the meaty, messy lead role in Tamara Jenkins’s “Private Life” in 2018, she had become so adept at filling in her performances that I felt I’d spent more time with her character than the film’s 123 minutes allowed. It didn’t hurt that she starred opposite Paul Giamatti, an equally incredible actor.

The two play a middle-aged, artistic couple — Rachel, a writer; Richard, a former theater director — who are trying to have a baby by any means necessary. The film swiftly, and rather funnily, cycles through the indignities of both adoption and assisted reproduction. Scenes with judgmental social workers are spliced with shots of Richard watching pornography in a fertility clinic.

“Private Life” is a comically apt title: Rachel and Richard are doing the most intimate thing — creating a new life — in front of a bunch of strangers. Richard learns his sperm count is zero in a recovery room full of other I.V.F. patients. After a doctor suggests using an egg from a donor instead of from Rachel, she storms out, distraught, only to argue with Richard on a busy New York City street. “I’m not putting someone else’s body parts into my uterus,” she yells as she makes way for a woman pushing a stroller.

It’s moving to watch Hahn make no effort to contain her feelings this time, even as Rachel’s rage spirals into a raw, snotty grief — neither for the benefit of passers-by nor for Richard. The vulnerability Hahn shares with us throughout the movie is exactly what Rachel shares with him.

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