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.)