Film Review: Afternoon Delight

Writer-director Jill Soloway maintains impressive control over this portrait of a modern marriage that is at once hilarious, audacious, moving and deeply romantic.

As houseguests from hell, Blanche DuBois and even Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine have nothing on McKenna (Juno Temple) in Afternoon Delight. This wily exotic dancer has somehow been installed in the cushy Silverlake home of bored housewife Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), her app inventor/entrepreneur husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) and little boy. The ladies met one night in McKenna’s club, after she performed a lap dance on Rachel and playfully paid for Jeff, and formed a swiftly growing bond soon after. Stifled by Jeff’s cellphone-obsessed inattention and endless mom-driven activities revolving around her local Jewish community center and school, Rachel experiences McKenna as a sweet blast of foul air in her “perfect” life, but the stripper’s irrepressibly libidinous ways wreak havoc in her household.

Writer-director Jill Soloway concocts a sprightly, biting portrait of modern bourgeois life that is consistently surprising and sexy, with a welcome, strong and savvy woman’s point of view. The early scenes with Rachel and her bestie (a sharp Jessica St. Clair) bantering in a sarcastic, hipper-than-thou way (shuddering at the thought of looking into their husbands’ eyes at the point of orgasm, snarking over the too-Jewishness of some of their clique), as well as her encounters with her analyst (Jane Lynch, here lesbian, completely self-involved and hilarious) have a pleasing zest to them. Many of Soloway’s lines are audacious, and there’s a terrific contrasting sequence of a hen party versus the ladies’ husbands’ poker game, with both of them reaching a histrionic climax and then converging for even more explosiveness. And then, as Rachel’s marriage begins to totter, decidedly aided by McKenna’s piquant presence, the film addresses the kinds of sexual tensions of married life—with romantic desire often an ever-waning commodity—which are rarely exposed with such intelligence and sensitivity. The film also looks fantastic, a rarity in comedies, with Jim Frohna’s masterfully lit yet subtle cinematography making Rachel’s world something of an impossible dream for the likes of McKenna.

McKenna’s physical and sexual freedom is something which fascinates Rachel, who allows herself to be massaged and opened up in new ways, even going so far as to accompany her new friend on a sex job, which is played for seriousness rather than yuks (and all the more impressive for that). Starting out as a raunchy comedy, the film gains considerable emotional richness through Soloway’s febrile and daring writing and its spot-on acting and achieves a trickily sustained balance of happy/sad, with a satisfying, slightly bittersweet wind-up.

Hahn, who blithely stole We’re the Millers in a small role, here takes center stage and rewards Soloway with a smart, complex performance which joins Lake Bell’s in In a World and Aubrey Plaza’s in The To Do List in a triumphant triumvirate of funny, savvy and fierce female performances in a usually brain-dead summer. Rachel is frustrated and deals with that through humor, something which Hahn is fully up to. And she can also be a total, totally relatable and funny bitch to boot (and receives a comeuppance at the end which could easily have been a pandering buzz-kill, but is so delicately rendered that it isn’t).

Wriggling and sizzling, Temple is perfectly cast, although after this she might want to table the nymphet-strumpet roles for a while. However, there’s no doubting her considerable skill, and she provides the effective conduit through which Soloway expresses some sharp observations about “nice” society’s hypocrisy about sex and sex workers. Radnor admirably manages to hold his own in this estrogen glut, providing attractiveness as well as an eventual, touching emotional nakedness. The actors making up both his and Rachel’s respective posses are delightfully varied, with Michaela Watkins (also so good in In a World) a standout as the officious Queen Bee of the Jewish volunteer set.