Jill Soloway's "Afternoon Delight" is one of the wisest films of the year, knowing and insightful on matters of the heart and the libido.
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 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 tag along when a girlfriend and her husband venture one evening to a strip club, where her friend sets her up with a private lap dance, performed by a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple of "Killer Joe"). Rachel feels a connection to the girl and, after dropping Logan off one afternoon, arranges accidentally to 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 on 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 much of her disposable income from weekly sex dates with an older client named Jack. Motivated by curiosity and motherly protectiveness, 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.
Another time, Rachel and her girlfriends get together for a night of drinking and dishing. The alpha mom, Jennie, 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 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 thinks unfavorably of her, 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 trite 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 passes. The look on the face of a husband who is powerfully attracted by the young, nearly naked young woman in front of him, and knows he will not act on that attraction. And sex with both eyes open: the idea, the reality.
In the lead, Hahn (so good in a straight comic part in "We're the Millers") gives a bravura performance, playing a hundred notes without striking a false one. Temple also has a very difficult role, a 21-going-on-18-going-on-35-year-old with love in her heart and no place she yet knows to put it. Radnor invests Jeff with integrity and guy-next-door appeal. 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 Lenore shrinking into Rachel's arms and crying, "I don't want to start all over again."
Soloway has written a lot of big laughs into "Afternoon Delight" - enough that, like Woody Allen, she can afford to toss in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em asides. (At the girls' night in, Rachel insists they look into each other's eyes when toasting. "Just go along with it," one tells another, "it's something she read in a Real Simple.") They're of the best kind: laughs of recognition 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 2013.