Serious Farce: My review of Afternoon Delight

B+ Officially a comedy

  • Written and directed by Jill Soloway

The plot sounds like broad, comic farce–a feminist take on Down and Out in Beverly Hills. A bored, Jewish young mother and housewife (Kathryn Hahn)  worries about the lack of sex in her marriage. Then, for reasons that are never really explained, she invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute (Juno Temple) to move into her home and become her pre-school son’s nanny.

By the laws of farce, this can go two ways: Either the stripper’s wild amorality will tear down the walls of middle-class bourgeois complacency, or those walls will be torn down by the stripper’s unconventional but ultimately superior moral code.

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But Soloway takes a very different approach: She plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The stripper proves herself reasonably adept at childcare, but no magical wiz. Besides, it doesn’t pay anywhere near as well as prostitution. The housewife and her husband fight about the situation, and there’s considerable sexual tension (both the good and bad kind) in the home.

When the stripper finally turns on her hosts, her motives are clear and understandable. And you can easily sympathize with everyone involved.

For an alleged comedy, Afternoon Delight isn’t very funny. But when it tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. Most of the husband-wife sex scenes cleverly earn their intended laughs–laughs that come out of what we know about the characters. Jane Lynch (one of the funniest performers working today) has a great comic turn as a therapist who’d rather talk about her own problems than her patients’.

And yet I can’t help wishing that Soloway and her collaborators had worked a little harder to gain more laughs. If she had found a way to keep the laughs rolling without losing the serious undertone, she could have made a truly great film–perhaps something on the level of Annie Hall.

By taking a comic plot seriously, Afternoon Delight gives us a close view of a marriage in trouble–one headed for either reconciliation or divorce. And one that often keeps us guessing about what will come next.

It’s also a pretty sexy movie.

I previewed Afternoon Delight previous to its screening at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.