The search for sexual gratification amidst a bored existence is the stuff of cheesy romance novels and late-night Cinemax skin fests. When you try to take it seriously with a psychological edge, chances are you will end up at Sundance or another major film festival. 2013’s Sundance featured no less than Concussion, Two Mothers and A Teacher, all films with women of a certain age exploring their newfound sexuality to varying levels of taboo. Afternoon Delight aims to make the same play but through a more comedic sensibility. Instead it winds up being one of the biggest tonal messes on display – comically, dramatically and morally – that is ultimately like trying to watch a Judd Apatow production of Shame.
The film’s title derives not from the Starland Vocal Band song (their version nor Ron Burgundy’s is referred to) but from housewife Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She tells her therapist (Jane Lynch) that she would prefer to get some in the afternoon rather than the nothing at night she has received for six months from her work-obsessed husband (Josh Radnor). To spice things up, the couple go with their friends to a strip club where an encounter with announced “19 year-old” dancer McKenna leads Rachel to discomfort, vomit and ultimately a stalking obsession with her. Quickly the pair become friends and when McKenna is thrown out of her digs she begins living with Rachel and Jeff, even playing nanny to their four year-old son. Look what mommy brought home, kiddo.
Any questions over bringing a stripper home to the suburbs as a housemate may rankle prudes looking for something to wince at. After all there is the consideration that Rachel’s “saving” of McKenna could just be another Risky Business-like situation that is going to blow up in her face. The dancer’s appreciation of this hospitality does seem sincere, especially as Rachel must additionally come to terms that she is also a “sex worker.” Not the kind that Helen Hunt portrayed in The Sessions, but the more biblical kind. The further Rachel explores this side of her new pal’s life, the further Afternoon Delight has trouble justifying precisely what kind of film it wants to be.
Hahn is a very gifted comedic actress who has shown range in drama on HBO’s Girls and Hung as well, so it is far from her fault that Rachel becomes a disjointed personality not through performance but from the writing and direction from Jill Soloway. Comedy often has little problems transitioning into dramatics, but it’s quite a stretch to go from teaching stripper moves in the backyard to Rachel’s horrified presence as part of a voyeuristic outcall with McKenna. It is a scene not played for uncomfortable laughter but more like part of a sexual thriller. Later, in the most confused sequence of them all, a night on the town for the ladies is interspersed with a poker game for the guys that quickly turns into a sexualized party. While the men are shown in a hypnotized haze, the women drink and fancifully joke about sex, including making reference to Michael Fassbender’s second-most noted talent; a gag more likely for the comediennes behind the characters they are actually playing. It is a scene that wants to suspenseful, fall-down funny and full of tragic confessions and consequences which come to such a confrontational head that it is impossible to believe in anyone’s behavior in the last 80 minutes that led up to it.
Temple’s McKenna is the natural catalyst for a lot of this behavior but she is so underwritten as a character that it is easy to mistake her for any of Temple’s other kewpie-doll characters who frequently show their boobies. Radnor’s husband is given three dimensions – in that he is given three different types of scenes to play: workaholic, bedtime sex and finally explosive anger over situations he could have stopped long ago. The inconsistency up and down in Soloway’s script and tone at least has the occasional deflection of Hahn doing her best to make this the character study it was likely intended to be. She serves up the bulk of the film’s laughs and when she is not cracking wise, there’s a pain behind her eyes that we wish was more seriously explored in a film about adults and not one just about adult situations.