Before I begin this review, I must confess that I am a huge fan of comedic character actress, Kathryn Hahn. She hasn’t had a lead role yet, but she’s had many memorable (and often hilarious) moments in raunchy comedies like STEP BROTHERS, THE GOODS, OUR IDIOT BROTHER, WANDERLUST and WE’RE THE MILLERS. AFTERNOON DELIGHT marks her first time in the lead. When I first heard that she was going to headline a movie, I got really pumped and wondered what kind of raunchy comedy it was going to be. But that I discovered that this was actually a serious movie. Sure, there are moments of humor, but it’s more of the awkward kind like in GREENBERG. So going into this, I was definitely curious to see how Hahn would do in a dramatic role.
Hahn stars as Rachel, a housewife in her late 30’s who is unhappy with her life. She doesn’t have sex with her husband anymore, she’s sick of her yuppy friends and her repetitious daily routine. One night she goes to a strip club with her husband and a couple of friends (hoping to spice things up). She gets a lap dance from a young girl named Mackenna (Juno Temple). The next day, she can’t help thinking about the stripper, though she has no idea why. Rachel tracks her down and starts up a friendship with her. Discovering that she’s homeless, Rachel invites Mackenna to live with her husband and pre-schooler. Rachel doesn’t know what to do with her life, so she is willing to try anything to feel alive. At first, Mackenna’s addition to the household is a refreshing change, but it slowly becomes something else (especially when it’s revealed that she’s also a prostitute), threatening to ruin the life of her family.
Looking at the synopsis, it looks like either a really bad sitcom premise or a cheesy B-movie thriller. Fortunately, this movie is neither of those things. At first, it seemed like it was going to be a raunchy comedy about Rachel’s sexual awakening, then it looked like it was going to be about the friendship between her and the stripper, but ultimately it’s about Rachel’s acceptance about where she is in her life. It’s a rather well told character study.
This could have easily been a broad comedy, and every once in a while, it felt like it might go that way, but then it takes a darker turn. And I liked that. Okay, so it doesn’t get as dark as SHAME starring Fassbender (though this film has a humorous reference to that actor’s genitals), but it never shies away from the darker elements of the story. There’s a subplot involving Rachel’s shrink played by Jane Lynch that could have easily played out like a generic sitcom, and for first half of the film, it kind of does. But the way that plot thread ends is surprisingly melancholy. And that’s how most of this film goes. It introduces a situation that seems like it’s going to be played for laughs, and then it goes down a dark path. Probably the darkest, and most sexual scenes of the movie, is when Rachel goes with Mackenna on a job to watch her have sex with a client. It’s an awkward and disturbing scene that, even though seems unlikely to happen, really resonated with me. Things do eventually train wreck, but I kept on hoping that things were going to work our for Rachel. The final scene in the movie couldn’t have been more perfect for this little film.
I expected Hahn to be good in this, but even I was caught off guard by just how good she is here. Hahn, coming from a background of broad comedy, easily could have played this lighter, but goes all the way. She does have some funny moments, but even those take a turn for the worse. It was an absolute joy watching Hahn shine throughout this movie. She plays Rachel with honest desperation, and even has a couple of breakdown scenes (completely with frantic sobbing). I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because she’s normally not a dramatic actress, but there is a truthfulness about her performance that felt more natural than say Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE. Don’t get me wrong, Blanchett was really good in that movie too, but compared to Hahn, her performance feels more calculated. Since Blanchett is more known and the movie she’s in is directed by Woody Allen, she’s more likely to get an Oscar nomination than Hahn, and that’s a travesty. In my opinion, Hahn’s raw, brave and bold (she bares all too) portrayal is the best female performance so far this year. I hope she gets more opportunities to shine like she does here.
The rest of the cast is pretty good too. Juno Temple certainly looks the part of a stripper, and she plays her superficially, as it makes sense for the character. I really must commend the actors for being brave enough to show their bodies off here. I imagine that must be difficult. And Temple certainly has a great body, but I’d take Hahn’s natural beauty over Temple’s any day. Whoops, I’m getting sidetracked here. Where was I….. Oh yeah. The supporting cast…… Josh Radnor plays Rachel’s husband. I’ve never seen him before, but he reminds me a bit of a skinnier Jon Favreau (or Jon Favreau in 1996). He delivers a fine performance as well and displays some good chemistry with Hahn. Their love scenes together feel very real and genuine, not glamorized. Sarah Polley tried to do this with her last film, TAKE THIS WALTZ, but director Jill Soloway is more successful here. Jane Lynch as Rachel’s shrink surprised me Just when I thought it was the same old performance that she usually delivers, she does something unexpected. And it was really nice seeing 80’s character actor John Kapelos (the janitor from THE BREAKFAST CLUB) as one of Mackenna’s kinky clients. He’s a hoot.
Director Soloway approaches the material mostly seriously. Occasionally it delves into comedy territory, which didn’t bother me most of the time. There were a couple of characters, like Rachel’s “mom friends” who felt more like they were from a sitcom, but that was only occasionally. Most of the time, the movie stays true to itself. The direction definitely has a mumblecore kind of feel to it (lots of handheld work, and a seemingly improvised feel). For this film it works, and the handheld stuff is never distracting. The script itself is probably the weakest part of the movie. Nothing about the premise is fresh, but the way it develops is a bit different.
This movie isn’t going to change the world, but it certainly has resonated with me longer than most films. AFTERNOON DELIGHT is a raw character study that is anchored by a career-defining, dramatic performance from comedic actress Kathryn Hahn. I also love its honesty towards sex. It’s a great women’s film, but men could learn a thing or two from it. Seek this one out. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for strong sometimes graphic sexual content, language and some drug use
– Running time: 1hr 37min.