Friday, August 30, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW Afternoon Delight
The Real Bored Housewife Of Silver Lake, California

Kathryn Hahn as Rachel in Jill Soloway's comedy-drama "Afternoon Delight".  The Film Arcade


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, August 30, 2013

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. 

We know little about McKenna other than that she's merely the functional film device fodder that sparks Rachel's behavior.  McKenna is supposed to be a metaphor for freedom, liberation, sexually or otherwise.  Soon after that lap dance, Rachel who has been married for years, invites McKenna to live with her and Jeff.  "I want to help you," Rachel says to McKenna, but she is truly talking to herself.  There's a void, one mostly unspoken of in the film except in one encounter, one suggesting that Rachel views McKenna as the second child she never had, which makes one scene in the film a mildly suggestive, perhaps uncomfortable nod to mother-daughter porn. 

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.  Yet the film shies away from Rachel's inner feelings at some junctures.  Before this, Ms. Soloway has made Rachel a self-absorbed wanderer in banality.  Rachel, by the way, has "Jewish angst" and is resistant to the traditions of her faith.  She frequently chides a fellow Jewish friend (Annie Mumolo), and I wonder if there is some self-loathing being exhibited by the director herself, who is also Jewish. 

In some ways Ms. Soloway, who also wrote the film, parodies the lives of entitled, cliquish white L.A. housewives whose "first world" issues feel like a burden to them.  In one scene Rachel speaks tonelessly about African women being repeatedly raped while fetching water.  It wasn't funny to me and it felt like a blunt and lazy effort to get laughs.  There's a mumblecore surface to "Afternoon Delight" that eventually explodes into zaniness and desperation with an overwrought melodramatic climax -- one you could see coming from a week away -- followed by a climax to end movie climaxes.

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.

Some of "Afternoon Delight" is oversimplified even as it attempts to be something more.  The sex angle of the film is presented in a comical and arousing manner but because the sex is shot from the perspective of a woman we assume has psychosexual baggage it provides Ms. Soloway cover from meaningfully exploring the absence or presence of sex in a marital household with children.  This exploration would have made for more interesting, provocative territory.  Instead, gimmickry and half-opened eyes rule the day.  What it is that makes married people withdraw?  Surely it is more than just the lack of interest in routine sex after a certain point.  Isn't it?  Ironically Rachel's therapist hints at what the answer is, and the fear behind it.

By comparison "Eyes Wide Shut" may have been viewed as misogynist, and it was.  A director with misogynist baggage in many of his films, Stanley Kubrick explored, with more depth and with Arthur Schnitzler's help, the machinations of dreams abut sex and betrayal albeit mainly through Tom Cruise's character, also a shallow type, however.  Interestingly, in its very title "Afternoon Delight" suggests a dream, a dessert, a paradise that, in this film at least, a housewife can find, while the husband is away.  Strippers it turns out, are the new pool boy.

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.

Also with: Jessica St. Clair, Michaela Watkins, Makenna Cotton, Sawyer Ever, Suzy Nakamura, Josh Stamberg, Keegan-Michael Key, Eugene Cordero, John Kapelos.

"Afternoon Delight" opened today in New York City and Los Angeles, and expands its release in several cities across the U.S. in the coming weeks.  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.

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