‘Afternoon Delight’: All hail Kathryn Hahn

August 29, 2013

afternoon

I’ll admit it. I have a critic’s crush on Kathryn Hahn. Jill Soloway’s witty, surprising “Afternoon Delight” only confirms it.

I’ve been a Hahn fan for a number of years; I celebrated when she landed the lead (opposite Hank Azaria) of a sit-com called “Free Agents” (and mourned when this smart, funny show was quickly canceled). I thought she stole every scene she was in of “My Idiot Brother” and this summer’s “We’re the Millers.”

Indeed, I saw Hahn in a line at Sundance in January where “Afternoon Delight” premiered – one of those Disneyland-like snakes of people where, when you start moving, you keep passing the same people as you wend your way back and forth. So I took the opportunity to say, “Hey – Kathryn Hahn! Big fan!” Yes, I know how pathetic that sounds. She certainly looked surprised – I couldn’t tell whether it was about being accosted or at being recognized.

Anyway, I watched “Afternoon Delight” and was convinced all over again that, given the right opportunity, Hahn could give Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig a run for their money as the funniest woman working in movies. “Afternoon Delight” isn’t perfect, but it is a showcase for Hahn’s range as an actress, comic and otherwise.

With her wide, elastic mouth and that Bob Hope profile, Hahn commands a wide range of facial expressions and, at various times, deploys many of them in this unexpected tale of a bored L.A. housewife. (Indeed, given its subject matter, the film would make an interesting bookend-pairing with the upcoming “Concussion.”)

She plays Rachel, married to Jeff (Josh Radnor), who develops apps for cell phones and whose business has recently exploded – so much so that he spends his time with his face buried in his own phone (when he’s not talking on it). She has one small son and spends a lot of time either doing volunteer work at the Jewish Community Center where her son attends preschool – or trying to avoid the clutches of her bossy friend, Jennie (the wonderful Michaela Watkins).

But she’s got a problem, which she discusses with her therapist Lenore (a delightfully crisp and self-involved Jane Lynch): Rachel and her husband seldom have sex. Not because they don’t want to – it just seems that they’re too tired at the end of the day. Rachel would happily indulge in the afternoon, but Jeff is never around.

Her best friend, Jennie (Jessica St. Clair), tells her that she and her husband spiced up their marriage by going to a strip club. So the four of them do exactly that – and Jeff even pays for Rachel to get a lap-dance from a young stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple).

It’s a transformative experience for Rachel, who finds herself drawn to the flirty young professional. So she contrives to meet her again outside of the club – by just happening to show up at a coffee truck that McKenna frequents. Before she knows it, Rachel and McKenna are meeting at this truck (which they follow on Twitter) everyday and talking about their lives.

For Rachel, who once dreamed of being a war correspondent, this new friend is a godsend: someone with an exotic job who will not be judgmental about Rachel’s life – or certainly not as judgmental as Rachel is about herself. When McKenna’s car (which essentially contains her life) is towed away, Rachel offers to let her move in with her and Jeff as nanny to their young son.

It’s never clear what Rachel is seeking, beyond some sort of thrill to shake her out of the doldrums of her life. Even when McKenna reveals that, in fact, she works as a prostitute as well as a dancer, Rachel believes she can make a difference in the young woman’s life. (“We call guys at the club who do that Capt. Save-a-ho,” McKenna tells her.) But, as they say, shit gets real – and Rachel isn’t prepared for the shock to her system which that kind of reality gives her.

Soloway’s plot ultimately goes awry when Rachel hurts McKenna’s feelings and McKenna gets revenge. It’s a little schematic, a little too predictable when Rachel’s world implodes and she has to scramble to hang on to the life that seemed too confining and staid. Staid, she realizes, isn’t a bad thing, and there are other ways to find what it is she’s been missing, starting with actually talking to her husband.

Still, this is Hahn’s film and she shines in every frame she’s in, whether talking dirty with her best friends or having a wine-fueled meltdown during a girls’ night out that goes wrong in too many ways. Hahn’s blend of vulnerability and strength, combined with her exquisite timing, is the perfect match for some of Soloway’s not-quite-jokey observations that Hahn comes out with.

Temple is better than she’s been in anything I’ve seen her in; I’d almost written her off as a starlet who had her moment and blew it. What she needs, really, is someone to make better choices of material for her, because she has a nice deadpan that she can deploy effectively.

“Afternoon Delight’ is one of those little films being tossed on the pile at the end of the summer, which will no doubt come and go from theaters, long enough to give it a little VOD cred. Take a chance on it – and fall for Kathryn Hahn the way I have.

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