“Afternoon Delight” screens Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Regent St., and writer-director Jill Soloway, a UW-Madison graduate, will introduce the film and take part in a post-show Q&A. R, 1:39, three and a half stars out of four.
For women (and men) of a certain age, there are many wince-worthy moments to be had in writer-director Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight.” In her feature film debut, Soloway absolutely nails the rhythms and conversations of upper middle class parenting, the endless series of playdates and charity auctions and girls’ nights out that must be navigated just right, preferably by Evite and Facebook.
But as much as “Afternoon Delight” is an acute comedy of boho manners, it’s also a sharp-witted and sometimes painful look at the empty spaces between the fundraisers, as one Silver Lake mother named Rachel (the wonderful Kathryn Hahn) starts to sense that, underneath all the twitter of daily life, she might be really unhappy.
Her relationship with her successful app developer husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) has sunk to the level of amiable roommates — sex is rare and disappointing, and after their daughter goes to bed, they spend their nights gazing into their laptop screens, worlds away in the same room. They seem to spend so much time successfully managing their lives that they don’t have room to actually live it together.
On a whim, Rachel and Jeff join another couple on a trip to the local strip club, just kind of as a goof. Rachel gets a lap dance from a girlish stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple) and she’s — intrigued? attracted? concerned? For reasons she can’t quite explain to herself, Rachel starts dropping by the coffee truck near the strip club during the day, just happening to catch McKenna as she’s heading into work, and the two become friendly. When McKenna gets evicted, Rachel offers to let her stay at her house. Rachel, who has always buried herself in charity work to avoid working on herself, thinks she’ll rescue McKenna from the sex-worker trade, although she hasn’t come up with much of a way to do that other than start a blog or a podcast.
But instead of pulling McKenna out of the darkness, Rachel finds herself getting pulled into it, semi-willingly. “Afternoon Delight” is very funny, but it’s also very uncomfortable at times, as we wonder just how far Rachel will get pulled away from her old life. Adding to the discomfort is the casting of so many comic actors — Hahn was in “Step Brothers” and “We’re the Millers,” Radnor stars on “How I Met Your Mother,” and the rest of the cast includes Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins, Keegan Michael Key, Jessica St. Clair — basically playing straight roles. There’s a delicious discomfort in watching a funny person deliberately not being funny — think Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” — that gives “Afternoon Delight” an agreeably tart flavor.
And Hahn is really at the epicenter of that flavor, able to take Rachel from arrogant self-delusion to naked yearning so effortlessly that we’re willing to follow her into those dark places and back. “Afternoon Delight” very quickly establishes Soloway as a filmmaker with something to say, and who says it in a funny and fearless way.