Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), the principal character in Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, is busy going through the motions. A late-thirtyish, comfortably middle-class mother and housewife in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, she spends most of her time airing her liberal guilt for her shrink (the dependable Jane Lynch), working on community-relations projects with her similarly hands-on girlfriends, and day-dreaming about a more exciting sex life — make that any sex life — with her distracted husband Jeff (Josh Radnor), who makes a living designing apps for electronic devices (arghh!). Their married life is symbolized by the family’s typical default evening meal, soy cheese pizza (ugh!).
One evening, searching for a way to spice up their routine, Rachel and Jeff take Rachel’s best friend Steph (Jessica St. Clair) and her husband to Sam’s Hofbrau, a Hollywood strip club of the kind you only see in movies, meaning the girls are uniformly beautiful and the atmosphere is non-threatening. After a few drinks, brazen Rachel opts for a private-room session with a nubile blond dancer named McKenna (Juno Temple). Things get hot between them, and the next day Rachel “happens by” the club and “runs into” McKenna on her way to work. They hit it off in broad daylight, and through a believable set of circumstances Rachel invites McKenna back to her house as a live-in nanny for her young son.
Let’s pull over on the shoulder for a minute and take inventory. We’ve got a bored, sexually curious wife; a passive and easily manipulated husband; and an intrigued, opportunistic prostitute, all suddenly sharing a house. There are several directions a situation like this could go. But remember, this is a Hollywood indie written and directed by a woman. It’s not especially cynical and only marginally exploitative. The very fact that Rachel wants to honestly relate to McKenna would never have happened if Rachel had been a typical male titty-bar customer.
In fact, as it’s set up, the plot could only take place between two women — things are safer that way. It’s probably not going to turn into a three-way lust-a-palooza and no one’s going to end up getting killed. We hope. Well-meaning Rachel wants to help McKenna escape the life, maybe set up a blog, etc. The high-minded “social work” impulse trumps ordinary carnality, at least for now. So there’s a bit of suspense as McKenna settles in.
Writer-director Soloway has a lengthy résumé in cable TV sitcoms, including Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy, and United States of Tara. Presumably, Afternoon Delight gives her the chance to float some slightly raunchier material for the big screen, but the lasting impression is of a confrontation between incompatible spheres of existence. In her efforts to understand McKenna’s demimonde and also to take a midlife walk on the wild side, Rachel gently but persistently patronizes the “full-service sex worker.”
From their first meeting, the two women automatically assume “trick and customer” roles, with McKenna as the obliging household contractor — potentially nasty stuff, defused by Hahn’s skillful clowning and UK native Temple’s affinity for lower-class characters with a hint of menace. One is a compulsive joiner who makes a point of her religion (in Rachel’s case, Judaism) while the other dwells on the fringe (“My mom’s a witch,” offers McKenna. “Sometimes I think I might be one, too”). Ironic laughs develop when Rachel tries to school the younger woman on “networking and building relationships.” As if she needed help. McKenna already knows exactly what to do at a guys’ poker party. She understands her particular style of networking thoroughly.
There isn’t any law that says a contemporary marital comedy can’t have sharp, irreverent fun involving sex workers. With major input from Hahn — seen recently in the riotous We’re the Millers — filmmaker Soloway gets away with quite a few barbed observations about conventional family life, sex as therapy, sex as a business, and the wide gulf between propertied matrons and lap dancers fresh off the reservation. Wised-up Afternoon Delight is part of the new breed of chick-flick, and it’s worth a look.