The Starland Vocal Band aren’t on the soundtrack of Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama “Afternoon Delight”; strangely there isn’t enough sun in Silver Lake, California for the band’s sunny, suggestive lyrics in their namesake song. Robin Thicke’s summer misogyny song “Blurred Lines” is likewise absent. Yet the songs could respectively represent Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and McKenna (Juno Temple), women of different generations who meet in a strip bar in this city in Los Angeles County. Rachel is a forty-something housewife with a son and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor), a self-involved “app”-creator whose head is buried in his iPhone. Ms. Hahn does well portraying a truncated character, as does Ms. Temple.
“Afternoon Delight” begins with an implication that Rachel has psychological issues, tying them in a seemingly good marriage to the sole issue of sex. Sex with Jeff is infrequent. Rachel is bored and dissatisfied, she says to a self-absorbed shrink (Jane Lynch) with her own problems. Rachel’s blithely callous husband adds to her insecurity by insulting his tomboyish wife, implicitly calling her sexless or androgynous. “Men wear those for masks when they rob banks,” Jeff says of a half-naked Rachel’s pantyhose. This early limiting and defining of Rachel in sexual terms as a woman who is troubled solely because her sexual needs are unmet puts the film (and Rachel) in a corner before it truly starts.
When Rachel reluctantly visits a strip club Jeff, not Rachel, requests that 21-year-old McKenna give Rachel a private lap dance on her behalf. The film obfuscates Rachel’s feelings during the lap dance McKenna gives. Does Rachel enjoy it? Is she curious? The quick-cutting during the lap dance scene is a conceit, depicting Rachel as less a complex figure than a stereotypically prudish domesticated older woman literally rubbing up against an equally stereotypically “wild”, feral-like, youthful stripper. These are the shallow, misogynistic Madonna/whore poles to which Rachel and McKenna are attached.
In any case, “Afternoon Delight” depicts its women as plastic bodied or card-boarded. Either they are nags, hags, “too Jewish”, group-thinkers or licentious. There’s little variance, though McKenna’s oddly maternal side emerges during a scene where the awkward Rachel, like a child to sexual awakening, is an invited voyeur to one of McKenna’s sexual escapades.
There are several sexual episodes in “Afternoon Delight” but sex doesn’t necessarily make a film sexy. Jeff, who carouses with his similarly stereotypical male buddies — those who wear the demeanor of having been “whipped” into line by their spouses — is a pathetic husband, inviting a chaotic situation by consent. He indicts Rachel, ignores Rachel and berates Rachel when things aren’t quite perfect. It’s her fault by inference, the story goes. “Afternoon Delight” lets Jeff off the hook, and too easily. Communication is the biggest elephant in relationships, and Rachel and Jeff don’t get to really talking to each other until the metaphorical elephant defecates all over them.
Ms. Soloway, who wrote several episodes of “Six Feet Under”, doesn’t communicate the imbroglio (or for that matter, the clarity) of her Silver Lake protagonists with sufficient conviction. The cloudy, cool and often vacant “Afternoon Delight” shifts its goalposts as a film. Is it Rachel’s punchless marriage in general that triggers Rachel’s actions? Is it purely the sexual bereft and alienation she feels? Is it Twitter? Is it technology (maybe.) Is it more? Moreover, McKenna apparently has no male relationships beyond her clients. I wonder how the film would have been had Ms. Soloway gave McKenna that background and then contrasted her and Rachel’s existences. Sadly, the director’s film grows into cliché and stays comfortable on that footing.
At least Ms. Soloway’s film is smart enough to note the double standard of men and women when it comes to sex. There are women who dabble or explore desire only to get so close to the edge of ecstasy in a man’s sexist world. Some get paid for it. Conversely, there are men who get to live out their own sexual desires and opportunities, right or wrong — with women being blamed for those adventures and misadventures in the process. The men of “Afternoon Delight” largely govern its sexual parameters and the terms of engagement, even in scenes where the women appear to have the upper hand.
Finally, there’s a dishonesty and expediency in associating mental turmoil with a woman’s need to explore sexually. For it is the very same sexist argument male scientists and others used in the preceding two centuries when trying to “understand” or grasp women and their sexuality. Yet Ms. Soloway is not immune to this either, where “Afternoon Delight” is concerned.
Expanded review of “Afternoon Delight” here
Also with: Jessica St. Clair, Michaela Watkins, Makenna Cotton, Sawyer Ever, Suzy Nakamura, Josh Stamberg, Keegan-Michael Key, Eugene Cordero, John Kapelos.
“Afternoon Delight” opens next weekend in San Francisco, while continuing in New York City and Los Angeles. The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong sometimes graphic sexual content, language and some drug use. The film’s running time is one hour and 37 minutes.
Omar P.L. Moore is the editor of The Popcorn Reel movie review website and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter, YouTube or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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