Afternoon Delight ends with a sigh, dissipating into nothing, but Solloway nevertheless exhibits some good writing and directing ability in the lead up.
As Juno Temple (Killer Joe)—playing a glitter-sweating stripper named McKenna—grinds and gyrates on Kathryn Hahn (Parks & Recreation) in a private booth in a strip club, staring seductively, deeply, into the older Hahn’s eyes, it’s a perfect representation of everything that’s right with Afternoon Delight, the new cringe comedy written and directed by Jill Soloway (who formerly produced Six Feet Under), though things don’t stay right for long.
Hahn plays Rachel, a pretty housewife whose sexless marriage with her workaholic husband Jeff (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor) has brought them to the club in hopes of recharging their libidos. Her nervous reluctance has rendered her stiff as a board under the perky body undulating before her. The warm, rose-colored lighting is clean and moody, and Solloway’s camera gets in close, never shying away from the intimacy.
“How old are you?” asks Rachel, breathless. “I’m 19!” squeaks McKenna. Rachel tenses up some more. “Oh my god—that’s young.” The frazzled way in which Hahn delivers the sharply-written, oddball dialogue is spot-on. “I had a baby,” she blurts, rejecting McKenna’s attempt to lift up her shirt, referring to the birth of she and Jeff’s five-year-old son, Logan. It’s after the steamy exotic encounter when things begin to go south.
You see, Rachel decides that inviting McKenna—a stranger who we discover later to be a whore—to stay in the guest room of her family’s beautiful home in the affluent Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A. is a great idea. Why? Probably because she found herself surprisingly titillated by the private dance, though she swears she’s determined to “rescue” McKenna from her demeaning lifestyle. But what about Logan? It’s fine—McKenna will make a great nanny! How does Jeff feel about all this? Well, Rachel never consulted him about it, and he doesn’t feel comfortable with putting up a stranger, let alone a stripper/whore (crazy, right?), but hell—at least she’s cute! The whole arrangement is so contrived, so unbelievable, that your eyes will be ready to fall out of their sockets from rolling so much.
What inflames the insanity is that Hahn comes off as a smart, wise-cracking, perceptive woman. “How can I complain? Women in Darfur walk 14 miles to get water and get raped on the way,” she pontificates, in one of a handful of egregiously shoehorned-in therapy sequences featuring Jane Lynch (admittedly hilarious) as her shrink. Sure, she’s got marital frustrations and is locked in the same loop of malaise that a lot of stay-at-home moms find themselves stuck in, but she isn’t stupid—even an idiot could foresee the catastrophic repercussions of her ridiculously short-sighted decision.
Where Afternoon Delight is really great, however, is when it’s in Apotow mode, best represented in scenes involving Rachel yammering on and gossiping with her friends, fellow housewives with poker-playing, cigar-smoking, neglectful husbands. At one of their swanky homes, the ladies drunkenly reminisce about their now-long-gone sorority years. The always dependable Michaela Watkins acts as pack leader, an overly-enthusiastic soccer mom who is constantly pestering Hahn about helping out at the JCC. When Hahn, sweating alcohol, insists that they lock eyes as they toast wine glasses (interrupting the story Watkins is desperately trying to tell the group), Watkins irately refuses to return the gaze. Hahn just stares…and stares…until Watkins grudgingly obliges. Hahn ups the squirm-in-your-seat factor when she poses the mind-numbing question, “Has anybody here wondered what their aborted children would be like?”
Focus is what’s sorely lacking here, tonally. The smart-ass exchanges between the comedy-centric ensemble generally read as light-hearted and clever, no edgier than what you’d see on The Office. Then, abruptly, Solloway throws in a dark, atmospheric scene that looks ripped straight out of a Soderbergh drama. A prime example is one in which McKenna invites Rachel on a run to visit one of her Johns. Rachel watches on, repulsed, terrified, and unsettled, as McKenna rides the bear-bellied client, who reaches his hand out to Rachel, pleading with her to grasp it. It’s a harrowing scene that works cinematically, but feels woefully out of place after we’d just seen Rachel joking around and making witty remarks at a JCC function. The juxtaposition just feels wrong.
Afternoon Delight ends with a sigh, dissipating into nothing, but Solloway nevertheless exhibits some good writing and directing ability in the lead up. She has a way with words, and every quip and snide remark she wrote into the script is laugh-worthy. It’s great dialogue, despite it serving a broken larger story. Solloway brilliantly captures the compelling performances put forth by Temple and Hahn, which buoy Afternoon Delight. (The rest of the ensemble, while talented, don’t offer up anything memorable.) Temple’s McKenna is free-spirited, straight-talking, and strangely all-knowing, almost too comfortable in her own skin. Hahn commands the screen at all times—her scrunchy facial expressions can convey anything from disgust, to joy to rage with effortlessness. The two beautiful leading ladies and have enough electricity between them to drive the story forward, but they deserve better than this ill-conceived vehicle.