January 29, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “Afternoon Delight”


It takes quite a while–almost its entire length, in fact–for the utter conventionality of AFTERNOON DELIGHT to become clear.  Jill Soloway’s feature directing debut, for which she unaccountably won a Sundance award, toys with being a much more interesting, transgressive film, before settling down to be as middle-of-the-road and inoffensive as is humanly possible.  Soloway comes from a TV background–she’s been a producer on Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy and United States of Tara, among others–but the era when “TV” was a perjorative word is over, and Delight is far more timorous than much of the work available on a nightly basis on the small screen nowadays.

When we meet Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), she’s having a Sundance-typical upper-class Los Angeles midlife crisis, suffering from a lack of attraction to husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) so extreme that they haven’t had sex for 6 months, seeing a flamboyantly ineffective therapist (Jane Lynch, playing the “Jane Lynch role”), and generally disassociated from everyone around her.  To spice things up, she takes Jeff to a local strip club, where she becomes fascinated by one of the dancers, McKenna (Juno Temple).  After a few contrived “coincidental” meetings, Rachel finds McKenna being thrown out of her apartment, and she invites the girl to move into their spare room and serve as her young son’s nanny.  Even discovering that McKenna is a full-fledged sex worker only increases the allure for Rachel, who finds herself turned on and disgusted by what McKenna does at the same time.

What’s going on with Rachel?  Is the movie going to be about the awakening of her feelings for McKenna, or for a different kind of sex life than the one she has?  Is her very vocal disdain for the women who are theoretically her friends a sigh of something deeper?  In the end, it turns out that Afternoon Delight, seemingly with no irony at all, is about nothing more than Rachel’s journey to a really good orgasm (an “eyes open” one) with her husband, regardless of what happens to anyone else in her life (sort of like the way Brian DePalma’s Blow Out was about the John Travolta character’s search for the perfect scream, even though it turned out to require the death of the woman he loved) .

There’s an underlying creepiness to Afternoon Delight that Soloway never acknowledges. and the movie leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. It gives its own very nasty game away with the way it treats McKenna, who is heaved out of the story in the third act and only glimpsed again for a few seconds (where since she appears to be laughing, she must be OK).  Soloway, like Rachel, has absolutely zero interest in McKenna as anything other than a tool for Rachel’s sex therapy, and in depicting McKenna that way, basically treats the character as though she’s the writer/director’s own hooker.  Similarly, although Rachel’s viciousness toward her friends results in her being shunned by a few of them, Rachel is shown as being the strongest and most honest of the group.  And in any case, she and her husband are closer than ever, so it must all be worth it.  Beneath the sometimes funny sex jokes, the message is deeply unappealing.

Until the movie reveals its hand, some of it works fairly well.  It’s nice to see Hahn get a meaty lead role, after years of  the TV grind, and she gives the part her all, especially in the scene where she goes after her friends, and in a furious fight she has with Radnor out in the street and in front of her son.  Radnor digs into his dramatic scenes effectively, although some of the other supporting cast, including Jessica St. Clair and Michaela Watkins as friends, are far too sitcommy.  Temple works hard to create a cohesive character despite the fact that her role is terminally underwritten, and John Kapelos does quite a bit with his single, tonally difficult scene as a client of McKenna’s.

The movie looks very professional (the photography is by Jim Frohna), and the score by Craig Wedren and soundtrack songs are well-used.  Afternoon Delight doesn’t suffer from a lack of competence.  What it does lack is self-knowledge:  it’s a film that doesn’t even realize it’s about its own narcissism.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."