Afternoon Delight is a more serious and darker film than you might expect, considering its cast loaded with recognizable (though not necessarily "name") comedians headed by Kathryn Hahn, who has stolen scenes in a dozen comedies, including Step Brothers, Wanderlust, and TV's Parks and Recreation. That is not to say that Afternoon Delight is a button-pushing exercise in anti-comedy, like Rick Alverson's ironically titled The Comedy from a couple years ago, but writer-director Jill Soloway's vision of middle-aged ennui in Los Angeles plays kind of like Pretty Woman as reimagined by Elaine May and John Cassavetes. The laughs are there, but boy, they come with an emotional cost.
In hopes of rejuvenating their stalled sex life, failed journalist and stay-at-home mom Rachel (Hahn) takes her husband Jeff (How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor) to a strip club. There, Rachel finds herself fascinated by McKenna (Juno Temple, Killer Joe), a young stripper who gives her a lapdance. Eventually, she contrives reasons to be in the neighborhood of the strip club, so she can find McKenna and see her again. Hahn and Soloway refuse to show all of Rachel's cards, leaving us to guess throughout the film whether she merely wants to investigate how the other half lives, or she wants a taste of a wilder life, or she's just infatuated with this young, sexy girl. Does she want a new girlfriend? Does she want a new girlfriend? Most likely, it's a mixture of all of that.
Soon, McKenna ends up without a place to live, so Rachel offers her the spare room in her house. A more conventional film would use this as the set-up for a culture-clash comedy: after some time spent living together, Rachel would loosen up and McKenna would find that middle-class values aren't so bad. Or, alternatively, it could be an infidelity drama where Rachel and/or Jeff gives into temptation and the newly uncorked passion threatens to tear their precious home apart. Granted, Afternoon Delight borrows a few beats from the culture-clash comedy and a few from the infidelity drama, but thrillingly it subverts pretty much all of them. The film plays it pretty dry and awfully real, and piece by piece it lets Rachel's plan believably blow up in her face.
Rachel claims she is trying to help McKenna turn her life around, but when she learns that McKenna is not only a stripper but also a full-on prostitute, Rachel is left impotently wringing her hands. She drives McKenna to a john's house, like a twisted soccer mom, and later accompanies her on a visit where the client likes to have someone else watch. Not only is she not helping McKenna, but it's difficult to argue that Rachel is even helping herself.
Hahn and Temple are outstanding as the two lead women, never letting the characters turn into "types." They are fully realized and unsentimentally messy as people. At any given moment, we can see Rachel and McKenna as would-be lovers or would-be mother-and-daughter or even just would-be friends, but they never simply ease into one of those relationships.
The rest of the cast is also top-notch. Radnor plays Jeff as a good-natured beta male, not really getting to show off as an actor until the emotionally charged scenes near the film's end. Jane Lynch gives a brilliant low-key performance as Rachel's lesbian psychotherapist Lenore, who is always inappropriately sharing stories about her own perfect relationship. Frequent Comedy Bang Bang podcast guest Jessica St. Clair appears memorably as Rachel's best friend Stephanie, who is bemused but amused by Rachel's choice in houseguests. Other familiar faces include Wanderlust's Michaela Watkins, Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key, and the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Bridesmaids, Annie Mumolo.
It is an awful shame that Afternoon Delight failed to find even a niche audience during its theatrical run*. While the film shines as a brilliant piece of filmmaking, full of unguarded performances, uncomfortably real moments, and unexpected emotion, one can't help but wish for the ability to take it in with an audience... for the laughs. On video, the film has laughs, but the relative darkness of the story makes it easier to choke on them. In a crowded theater, I expect the film plays funnier, with scattered nervous laughs turning into bigger cathartic belly laughs. Maybe you'll just have to resort to the next best thing and gather together a large group of your most interesting friends for a home-theater screening. With or without them, though, Afternoon Delight is a hell of a memorable time at the movies.
*...unless Quentin Tarantino counts as a niche audience. The filmmaker notably included Afternoon Delight in his list of the top movies of 2013. (Yes, he did also include The Lone Ranger and The Conjuring on that list. Nobody's perfect.)
Afternoon Delight comes in a dual-format combo pack, with both a Blu-ray and DVD. Both discs contain the same bonus features.
Cinematographer Jim Frohna gave Afternoon Delight a basically neutral palate. All uses of color are motivated by the locations so the exteriors tend to have the most touches of color, while the interiors often look gray-greenish or white, with the actors often flatly lit in front and backlit by the windows. It doesn't feel cold or sterile, necessarily, but the look is clearly letting the audience know: this movie is raw and serious, and stuff. The 1080p AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer mostly reproduces the look quite well, though there are some instances of noise, clipping, and banding in the highlights on some of those plain white backgrounds. The amount of fine detail is excellent, and certainly in line with what you expect from a brand-new movie.
I feel like I end up repeating myself a lot in these audio sections, but I guess I watch a lot of talky indie movies. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio sounds crisp and clear, but the surround speakers are pretty much just put to use during the numerous indie-rock/indie-folk music cues. The disc has no alternate language options, but there are English SDH.
- Audio commentary with writer/director Jill Soloway and actor Kathryn Hahn - This is easily the disc's best special feature. Soloway and Hahn are in high spirits, just talking and joking, letting the topic float from the nuts and bolts of production to technical gaffes to the thematic underpinnings of the story. Soloway is not without an occasional dash of pretension, but then she deflates it with jokes, such as when she claims that a shot of Hahn's character driving through a tunnel is symbolic of her character passing through a uterus.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 13:43) - Six scenes cut from the flick, playable in one chunk or separately. These are mostly quite good, but it is understandable why they got the axe, even though two of them utterly alter the plot of the movie by their deletion. The first of these is a scene where Rachel comes into McKenna's room in the middle of the night looking for tampons, and they end up sharing a kiss. By leaving out the kiss, it makes Rachel's shifting attitudes toward McKenna more ambiguous, which serves the movie better. The second involves Eugene Cordero as McKenna's ex-boyfriend (maybe pimp?) coming to Rachel and Jeff's house and trying to get McKenna to come back with him. Jeff deals with the situation dressed in his new wetsuit. Without getting too spoiler-y, by removing this scene, it keeps trouble from coming directly into Rachel and Jeff's house until a big calamity near the end, and therefore makes that calamity more dramatic.
- Making Afternoon Delight (HD, 9:16) - Pretty typical EPK stuff, though pretty entertaining. It highlights the actors discussing their characters more than showing us on-set stuff.
- The Gustavo House (HD, 1:46) - The first of the other shorter making-of featurettes on the disc. I'm not exactly sure why this is presented separately from the other featurettes, but it stands alone. This briefly looks at the house designed by Gustavo Gubel that acts as Rachel and Jeff's home in the film.
- Featurettes (HD, 7:32) - 5 other making-of featurettes that are similarly brief and specialized like "The Gustavo House," although they can be played all together or separately. There is some overlap with the "Making Afternoon Delight" piece, as some of the same interview soundbites resurface. I wonder why they didn't just take the footage from all seven of these clips and make them into one long 15-minute EPK.
In the current configuration, the piece called "Women and Wine" might be the best, as it gives an actual glimpse into the making of a sequence. In this case, it's the very Cassavetes-ish scene where Soloway let a roomful of actresses improvise a series of wine-soaked revelations.
- Trailer - It sells the movie as a bit wackier than it is, although some of the serious stuff shows up too.
Afternoon Delight is one of the best movies you didn't watch in 2013. While it would be nice if the making-of supplements weren't so short and trivial, the other bonuses are worth your time. Overall, the disc comes Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and lifelong movie buff. Check out his new experimental music project, Duck the Piano Wire.