Afternoon Delight: Sundance Review

A contrived and raucous comedy that also wants to be taken seriously but might play as an adult girls’-night-out attraction.

Jill Soloway presents off-putting comedy about a too-idle Los Angeles woman.

There’s not much delightful about Afternoon Delight, an off-putting comedy about a too-idle Los Angeles woman that all of a sudden in the last few minutes decides it wants to be a serious movie. First-time feature director Jill Soloway’s script is populated by well-off, well-educated, self-absorbed people who have nothing interesting to say and aren’t much fun to be around, while the lead character thinks it’s a good idea to bring an exotic dancer/hooker to Silver Lake to live with her husband and preschool son for a while. With its high female-centric raunch quotient, this has a commercial shot as an adult girls’-night-out comedy, but the lack of any real star power in the cast is a significant detriment.

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To give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps TV actress Kathryn Hahn (Parks and Recreation, Crossing Jordan) is an acquired taste. But on first exposure, she both comes on way too strong and seems to have a very narrow range for someone who’s in nearly every scene of the film and is being asked to carry it. Furthermore, she convincingly must sell the idea that, underneath all the nonsense that comes out of her mouth, her character has something to offer. Unfortunately, that’s never clear at all.

Framed by some frank talk between Rachel (Hahn) and her self-centered shrink (Jane Lynch), Soloway’s script is very much about sex and the fact that Rachel hasn’t been getting any lately. To spice things up, she organizes an outing with husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) and another couple to a strip joint, where Rachel ends up on the receiving end of some private erotic pleasuring from young blond dancer McKenna (Juno Temple).

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Mildly intrigued by this self-confident little pixie, Rachel cruises the club during the day and bails McKenna out of a domestic mess by offering her a place to stay for a while without checking with Jeff. Maybe she can even do some nanny duty. Fears that McKenna might be some drugged-out teenage runaway who will rip them off prove unfounded. To the contrary: She’s a “sex worker,” a pro who’s “pretty much down for anything” and has some big-bucks regular clients.

Before long, with Rachel’s efforts to revive her marital relations not bearing much fruit, she takes up McKenna’s invitation to accompany her on a visit to one of her clients (John Kapelos), a good-natured middle-aged guy who, in a no-pressure way, invites Rachel to join in if she wants to. But it disturbs her to even watch.

The big climax, such as it is, presents a raucous contrast between boys’ and girls’ nights. While Rachel and her best friends, all moms at the East Side JCC school, get loud and bawdy on red wine and discuss their wanton ways back in college and present fantasies (Michael Fassbender looms large in them), Jeff stays home to play cards with his pals, get loaded and loosen their inhibitions when the barely clad McKenna starts oozing around the room.

It doesn’t end well when the drunken gals arrive to find the house resembling a New Orleans bordello at the end of a Saturday night. However, one of the admirable aspects of Soloway’s script is that it doesn’t blame the men for the women’s problems; boys will be boys, she tacitly admits, suggesting that women have to look inside to come to grips with their own issues, not find fault with their mates or society or anything else.

Just when you think the film is about over, it continues for a while in fully dramatic mode. Some seeds have been planted for this, but not well enough. Hahn’s Rachel is too much a sitcom character to be taken seriously as a truly self-reflective soul, nor is it believable she could ever be a writer, as she imagines; scenes cheaply end with her barfing as a comic gag rather than reacting in more realistic ways. Hahn conveys nothing when asked to move into introspective mode, so it’s impossible to buy into the film’s plea to be taken seriously at the end, just as the upbeat finale feels false.

Soloway has been a writer and producer on such shows as Six Feet Under, United States of Tara and How to Make It in America, and there are isolated moments when it appears she might possess lurking ambitions to make something more serious about the messiness of living and of man-woman relations, perhaps a female equivalent of Cassavetes’ Husbands. She’s clearly got a taste for raw material, but she’d have to drop the shtick, use top actors and just let loose without the safety net of commercially minded contrivance.