Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Usually studios put all of a movie's funniest lines and most memorable moments into the trailer, so that by the time you get around to seeing it, you've already seen the best parts. Jill Soloway's "Afternoon Delight" exemplifies the opposite phenomenon: a great movie whose unfunny-chick-flick preview makes you want to avoid it like the plague. That's a shame, because this is one of the wisest films of the year, knowing and insightful on matters of the heart and the libido.
The set-up is not particularly promising. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) lives in Silver Lake with her app-designer husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) and their young son Logan. They drive the right cars, have the right friends, send Logan to the right school - yet Rachel finds herself unfulfilled by fundraisers and general sybaritism. She tells her therapist Lenore (Jane Lynch) she and Jeff haven't had sex in months. "All couples go through this, right?" "Not happy couples."
Hoping to spice up their love life, she and Jeff reluctantly agree to tag along when a girlfriend and her husband venture to a strip club one evening, where her friend sets her up with a private lap dance, performed by a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple). Rachel feels a connection to the young girl and, after dropping Logan off one afternoon, arranges to accidentally bump into her at a coffee truck outside the club. The next time she comes by, McKenna's car is being towed and her belongings dumped onto the street. Rachel volunteers their spare room - just until McKenna gets on her feet.
It is in the reactions of Rachel, and Jeff, and their friends, to the introduction of this external force that writer-director Soloway mines deep truths about men and women, love and sex. McKenna derives a large chunk of her disposable income from weekly sex dates with an older client named Jack (John Kapelos). Motivated by a mix of motherly protectiveness and exploratory curiosity, Rachel offers to come with her once, an idea Jack welcomes. (Rachel wears a wig and McKenna introduces her as Shelley.) The deeply uncomfortable way this scene plays out honors the universal experience of fantasy, heightened over time, crashing down against the clumsy corporeality of human sexuality.
On another occasion, Rachel and her girlfriends get together for a night of drinking and dishing. The alpha mom, Jennie (Michaela Watkins), had asked McKenna to babysit their kids, but, still spooked by their appointment with Jack, Rachel ordered Jeff to withdraw the offer. Soloway cuts back and forth as Rachel, whose feeling of being unmoored several glasses of wine only serve to exacerbate, lets loose a rant of self-loathing and self-pity that also includes savagely unkind remarks about her friends, while, across town, McKenna, who now knows Rachel views her in an unflattering light, plays her one card - the sex card - at the guys' poker party, showing what damage she can wreak when threatened.
These are very difficult sequences to pull off. It would be so easy to step wrongly, to lower the stakes by playing a moment for cheap laughs or easy moralizing. Soloway doesn't settle for that. "Afternoon Delight" is about something - a lot of somethings. How you can have a great situation, and lose it, and the fierceness of your remorse and resolve when you get it back - and how you can forget the lesson again after time goes by. And the look on the face of a husband who is powerfully attracted by the very young, nearly naked woman in front of him, and knows he will not act on that attraction in any way. And sex with both eyes open: the concept, the reality.
In the lead, Kathryn Hahn, who just about walked away with "We're the Millers," gives a bravura performance, playing a hundred notes without hitting a false one. Not conventionally beautiful, she may never again be given such an opportunity, but she accomplishes more here than most actresses do in a career. Juno Temple - who played the pivotal part of Dottie in last year's best film, "Killer Joe" - also has a tremendously difficult role, a 21-going-on-19-going-on-35-year-old with love in her heart and no place she yet knows to put it. Josh Radnor, acting in somebody else's film for a change, imbues Jeff with substance and integrity, a bit doughy but attractive and even sexy. Jane Lynch, who provides comic relief early in the film, must make a hairpin turn in the final act, and executes it flawlessly. I won't soon forget the sight of her shrinking into Rachel's comforting arms and crying, "I don't want to start all over again."
There are a lot of big laughs in "Afternoon Delight" - enough that Soloway, like Woody Allen, can afford to throw them in as blink-and-you'll-miss-'em asides. (At the girls' night in, Rachel insists they look into each other's eyes when they toast. "Just go along with it," one of them tells another. "It's something she read in a Real Simple.") They're of the best kind: laughs of recognition, laughs at our own flaws and foibles. Soloway earns them by staying true to her characters and giving them voice. Here is one of the real sleepers of the summer.