[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Afternoon Delight opens today in limited release.]
Kathryn Hahn is an amazing comic actress who has yet to receive the widespread recognition she deserves. She’s mostly been stuck in supporting parts, but she’s a scene stealer, and she deserves to be in lead roles. She finally gets that opportunity in Jill Soloway‘s Afternoon Delight. Hahn proves that not only can she carry the picture, but she has the dramatic range to play a woman who is looking for a change of pace in order to fix her life. Soloway puts a fascinating relationship at the center of the movie, and for two-thirds of the film it looks like she has made a confident feature debut. But then a sequence comes along that drowns the movie in sorrow, and grinds it to a halt to where not even Hahn’s performance can save it.
Rachel (Hahn) is unhappy. She feels her life has stalled, and she hasn’t had sex with her husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) in six months. Trying to reignite the passion in their marriage, Rachel and Jeff go to a strip club, and Rachel gets a private lap dance from a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple). A week later, Rachel decides to seek out McKenna, and the two become friends. Their relationship deepens after McKenna comes to live with Rachel to be the family’s nanny. Over the course of the story, Rachel keeps trying to find a change of pace in her life and thinks McKenna is the way to find it.
The premise is a bit contrived and plays a bit into the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché (McKenna calls herself a “sex worker”), but Afternoon Delight gives the character a new spin since the bond is different than the men who say they’ll take the strippers away from the life, and make honest women out of them. Rachel’s motives are a bit more ambiguous. There’s a charitable element, a sexual element, a desire to live vicariously, but most of all it’s a way to change her life and break free from her stagnant marriage as well as her shallow friendships.
The ambiguity of Rachel and McKenna’s relationship keeps the film feeling fresh, especially because of Hahn and Temple’s performances. I usually run a bit cold on Temple, but she does good work as McKenna because the actress finds the right blend of innocence and experience without the character feeling particularly jaded (up until the film implodes). But the real marvel is Hahn. For an actress whose previous work has been big comic roles in films such as Step Brothers and The Goods, Hahn’s acting in Afternoon Delight is remarkably subtle and quiet. There are definitely comic moments, but even these are a matter of timing and delivery rather than mugging for the camera. It’s a vulnerable performance that is essential to steadying the tone of the picture and helping us connect with the larger themes.
That is up until the entire movie falls apart in the span of twenty excruciating minutes. I won’t go into spoilers, but the sequence involves cutting back between Jeff at one party and Rachel at another. The purpose of the sequence is to show that McKenna’s influence hasn’t been some cure-all to Rachel’s marriage or emotional state. It’s a point worth making, but Soloway could have accomplished it in a quarter of the time. Instead, the director seems bent on making us as uncomfortable as possible, which works to a point, but then we simply get bored. After this sequence, the film loses its momentum and drags to a pat and unconvincing finish.
It’s a frustrating conclusion for a film that is mostly a strong effort. Soloway’s trust in Hahn was well-placed, and the lead actresses have the chemistry to keep their characters’ relationships strong while never being obvious about what each woman wants from each other. Most of all, the film makes the good observation that a change of pace isn’t an escape, and a new perspective won’t necessarily change the fundamental problems of your life. It’s just a shame that Afternoon Delight can do so much right but stumble so badly near the finish line.