Suburbia got you down? Sex with the hubby just not happening? Therapist no help? Have you considered bringing a stripper home? And there you have Afternoon Delight, Jill Soloway's new comedy-drama about clambering to stay above the yawning pit of middle-aged ennui.
The unequivocal best thing about Afternoon Delight is its star, Kathryn Hahn, a fine actress and fearless funny lady who should be a household name. Hahn plays Los Angeles housewife Rachel, married to one Jeff (Josh Radnor), mother to a kindergartner, surrounded by privilege and no happier for it. Not so hesitantly, Rachel takes the advice of her friend Jennie (Michaela Watkins) and takes Jeff out to a strip club, where dancer McKenna (Juno Temple, who seems stuck in airhead mode) catches Rachel's attention.
Right there, Soloway steps up to her first opportunity for dark subversion, but Afternoon Delight's problem is that it constantly earns two for flinching. Though there's a subtext of sexual frisson, Rachel's invitation to a put-out McKenna to stay a spell in Rachel's home indicates her attraction to McKenna's happily careless spontaneity and freedom from social mores. At Rachel's suggestion, McKenna begins work as a live-in nanny, first at home and soon outside of it as McKenna becomes the pet of the blithely under-informed soccer-mom set.
Clearly, this is a situation hurtling toward disaster, especially when it becomes clear that McKenna more than dabbles in prostitution. The film's first half plays the awkward situation comedy for laughs, setting an expectation of farce to come. But Afternoon Delight turns largely serious in its second half, something of a disappointment after the credibility-straining setup. Comedy and drama do, of course, meet in real life, but so distinctly splitting the difference here blows the film's chances of fully succeeding at either.
Ultimately, Soloway seems a bit unsure of what it's all about. The mise-en-scéne of strained school and Jewish Community Center and living room events to keep the neighborhood women occupied nicely supports the satire of suburban chic, but how Rachel's meant to cope with her feelings of emptiness in the long run never comes into focus, despite an ending that implies she's learned some sort of lesson (be careful what you wish for?). Climactic catharsis helps somewhat to bring the second act into focus; unfortunately, the blowup feels rather "been there, done that" for a movie that keeps (idly, as it turns out) threatening to turn transgressive.
Still, by putting utility player Hahn front and center, Soloway earns instant good will. The male-dominant cinema needs more stars like Hahn and writer-directors like Soloway to press the boundaries. Next time, though, more pushing and less nudging.