The premise of “Afternoon Delight,” admittedly, does not sound terribly appealing: to spice up their sex life, a Silverlake couple goes for a night out at a gentleman’s club and subsequently take in a stripper in need of help. From that logline alone you can glean that their relatively buttoned-up sex lives will get a jolt of temporary excitement, the threat of infidelity will loom larger in their house and this will undoubtedly turn out to be a very big mistake for all of them. Unfortunately for those who may have skipped out on the film because of its broad premise, “Afternoon Delight” is one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a thirty-something wife and mother who seemingly has it all but can’t help but feel vaguely dissatisfied with her life. Her husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) works as an app developer and has provided his family with a very nice home in one of L.A.’s hippest neighborhoods. But since the arrival of their child a few years back, their sex life has begun to suffer.
In fact, Rachel and Jeff have taken to avoiding sex altogether by having coded conversations that allow them to let themselves off the hook when they’re just too tired or otherwise not in the mood. Rachel realizes this is a problem as she’s explaining this to her therapist Lenore (Jane Lynch), who suggests she might try to spice up her sex life by visiting a strip club. When she presents the idea to Jeff, he’s reluctant initially (saying that strip clubs make him sad) but decides to go along for the ride anyway. Once there, Rachel gets a private lap dance from diminutive blonde dancer named McKenna (Juno Temple). Devoid of any dialogue (or nudity for that matter) the strip club sequence is presented as a very sexy montage that seems to awaken something in Rachel. Thinking she has a real connection to this young woman, Rachel seeks her out the following week and finds McKenna near the club and “accidentally” bumps into her. Soon she’s visiting McKenna for mid-day coffee breaks a few times a week, and so when McKenna finds herself temporarily out of her living situation, Rachel invites her to come live with her.
Rachel makes McKenna her nanny, which provides an opportunity for great sight gags like McKenna grabbing onto the support beam outside the elementary school and swinging past it like someone with a lot of experience. But things become complicated when McKenna reveals she’s more than just a stripper. (“I’m pretty much down for anything! I’m a full service sex worker.”) This development becomes a ticking clock for Rachel to be led out of her suburban malaise and explore her freakier side that is just curiosity at first, but the film takes a tonal shift into darker territory when Rachel decides to tag along during one of McKenna’s jobs. This results in one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the film and takes things distinctly out of comedic territory. In this and one other sequence — a John Cassavetes-inspired boys/girls night — the film is perhaps a little too dark and revelations a little too heavy for the story to hold. These missteps aside, “Afternoon Delight” succeeds mainly because although the premise is broad, writer/director Jill Soloway is determined to keep it real.
Many will go into the film expecting a light sex comedy but as a veteran of genre-bending TV like “Six Feet Under” and “The United States Of Tara,” Soloway is interested in taking the far-fetched conceit and exploring real issues. As a young mother in a loving marriage with a great house and few responsibilities (she has a nanny but no job, something she acknowledges is never how she imagined herself), some have been turned off by Rachel because they think, “What right does she have to be unhappy?” There’s a mistake that happens far too often when evaluating a film or TV show which is confusing the characters for the art itself. So often in film we see the husband engaged in midlife crisis/infidelity drama, but for some reason when the script is flipped, the audience tends to respond quite differently.
When HBO’s “Girls” hit the airwaves last spring, people assumed that because Lena Dunham’s character was self absorbed, Dunham too must be similarly self absorbed — her character’s actions were somehow an endorsement of this behavior — and that she could have no awareness of her character’s faults. This was of course completely untrue and her intention from the outset was to present a character who was a little bit spoiled and a little bit clueless. As a great man once said, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” and that’s completely valid (as long as it’s interesting).
The ensemble here is full of strong supporting players — including Jessica St. Clair, Keegan Michael Key, Michaela Watkins and “Bridesmaids”’ co-writer/star Annie Mumolo, who makes the most of every cutaway — but the film really belongs to Hahn. You may have seen her over the years doing notable supporting work in “Girls,” “Step Brothers” and “Wanderlust,” but she is absolutely incredible here: hilarious, affecting and real. As a perpetual supporting player pushed to the fore, her performance should open the door for the actress to take on even bigger opportunities. Somewhere between a comedy and drama, “Afternoon Delight” is about the importance of sex in keeping a relationship healthy and the dangers of allowing yourself to get stuck in a rut. It may not go down as easy as the title suggests but it’s one of the more interesting pictures on offer at Sundance this year. [B+]