You know Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), or someone like her. At school, she’s the busy mother volunteering for social committees and fundraisers. At home, this loyal wife oversees the tidy schedules of son, Logan (Sawyer Ever), and husband, Jeff (Josh Radnor). When no one’s looking, she’s happy to sneak a cigarette or dish about her dormant sex life with her frank-talking girlfriends. I’d bet my life savings Rachel has “50 Shades of Grey” and its provocative sequels on her Kindle.
But don’t assume that you understand Rachel. Writer-director Jill Soloway’s complicated indie dramedy “Afternoon Delight” hides a corrosive underbelly that threatens to shift the story in unexpected directions.
Lurking beneath the surface is an emotional discontent that’s threatening to swallow Rachel’s staid existence whole. She’s dismayed by the superficial minutia her peers on mommy blogs have embraced. The thought of intercourse with her shlubby spouse sends her into a panic. She’s unfulfilled and isn’t fully able to express why.
This sounds depressing. It isn’t. At least, not always. “Afternoon Delight” puts the typical suburban mother’s lifestyle under an uncomfortably honest microscope, then documents the sporadically funny and occasionally sad results. The movie is cut from the same basic material that spawned the forthright and sexually explicit “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” But it has a softer, darker, and more sympathetic view of its characters because of the feminine perspective provided by Soloway (who took home a directing award from the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year) .
“Delight” actually should be viewed as the female answer to the male-driven “Crazy Stupid Love,” in which Steve Carell played a marginalized family man who enlists a dangerous muse to help remind him how to live again. Rachel doesn’t encounter a dapper Ryan Gosling. (Too bad for her.) Instead, during an impromptu trip with close friends to a gentlemen’s club, she meets and sort of befriends McKenna (Juno Temple), a saucer-eyed topless dancer. In this impressionable stripper, Rachel recognizes all the rebellious qualities she’d rather see in herself. She begs the girl for guidance and gets more than she bargained for.
“Afternoon Delight” doesn’t break new ground when it comes to midlife-crisis analysis for the minivan set. Soloway steers clear of broad, wacky scenarios that easily could have steered “Delight” down more mainstream avenues. When Rachel invites McKenna into her home as a live-in nanny, the movie asks complicated questions and waits for us to find our own answers.
But “Afternoon” is groundbreaking in its own specific way. How many female comedians working in contemporary Hollywood are asked to carry a dramedy? The list is far too short. Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz used to do it regularly. Kristen Wiig, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tina Fey currently come to mind.
Hahn’s name belongs in those same circles. An expressive and unfiltered performer, she’s usually cast as “one of the guys” in raunchy ensemble comedies like “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” or “The Goods.” Earlier this year, she effortlessly stole scenes from Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis in “We’re the Millers,” and the second half of “Delight” proves she can take an emotional punch.
The movie’s a mixed bag, but Hahn makes the most of her opportunities. Casting directors would be wise to take note.
O’Connell is a freelance writer.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains strong, sometimes graphic, sexual content, language and some drug use. 93 minutes.