Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Very Accurate Word

Quite a few years ago, longer than maybe I’d care to admit, I went to my friend Dani’s birthday party in Griffith Park one afternoon. Because Dani always had a knack for doing this sort of thing at his events part of the day involved him pairing people up together so they could go off by themselves to various corners of the park and, well, analyze each other. Take my word for it, if you knew Dani this wouldn’t seem at all odd. I was paired up with a woman I’d never met named Jill Soloway and in all honesty much of what we talked about has long since left me but I do remember that our conversation was intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. If I had known then that she was going to go on to be one of the main creative forces behind one of the best television shows of the aughts, SIX FEET UNDER, maybe I would have written some of it down. I also probably would have tried a little better to stay in touch with her, but never mind. All this time later I still run into Jill Soloway in random places every few years and get a vague look of recognition on her face which is better than nothing from the writer of the “I’ll Take You” episode of SIX FEET, I suppose. After working on several other series through the years including UNITED STATES OF TARA and DIRTY SEXY MONEY, 2013 saw the release of Soloway’s first feature film as director, the unexpected and piercing AFTERNOON DELIGHT for which she won the Best Director award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was also named by no less than Quentin Tarantino as one of the best films of the year. A comedy that always remembers to keep genuine emotions in mind, a character study which never holds back on all the flaws of the people in it, it’s a brave and admirable piece of work. That it’s mostly set pretty close to my neighborhood makes it that much more interesting for me, set in a world that I recognize but am not really a part of, fitting since it’s made by someone who I’ve met but can’t honestly say I know.
Upscale Silverlake wife and mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is feeling listless in life with her one child no longer a baby and husband Jeff (Josh Radnor) focused more and more on his app-heavy business with even sex between the two of them not really happening anymore. After a trip to a strip club with some of their friends to spice things up where Rachel is given a lapdance by a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple) she can’t get the stripper out of her mind and manages to figure out a way to meet up with her again. One thing leads to another and once McKenna finds herself in a jam Rachel brings her home to stay for a few nights until she finds a place to stay. Soon enough Rachel learns that McKenna isn’t just a dancer but a full-fledged ‘sex worker’ as she calls it leading to things becoming even more complicated when McKenna inserts herself into the lives of some of Rachel and Jeff’s friends as well.
“A job does not define who you are,” says Rachel at one point to defend stripper/‘sex worker’ McKenna, leaving it unspoken that she can’t define herself anymore and is drawn to McKenna in some sort of friend/protector/mother/lover combo that she can’t come close to putting into words. Feeling rudderless as she watches life go on outside of her like the car wash she goes through in the first scene, she’s trying to change her own narrative without knowing why and she can’t even find the correct lies to explain what she’s trying to do with McKenna, let alone the actual truth as if she’s wondering, If I don’t feel like myself anymore, can I be someone else? Almost never willing to let a laugh go by without adding an extra layer to the moment, AFTERNOON DELIGHT takes the inherent gimmickry of its story and turns it into something genuine and honest, not going for the easy laughs that you’d expect from a movie that contains the line, “The stripper is in the maid’s room?” while also resisting the obvious melodrama that could occur. When Jill Soloway appeared at a Cinefamily screening of AFTERNOON DELIGHT this past January as part of their Underseen & Overlooked of 2013 series during the Q&A afterwards she talked about how the likes of John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby had been influences on her in making the film. Other directors including Paul Mazursky come to mind as well which might just be me pigeonholing the film as a Silverlake-set DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS with a sex worker (even Josh Radnor’s app invention is like a modern day equivalent to Richard Dreyfuss’ coat hanger business) but regardless such comparisons manage to make AFTERNOON DELIGHT even better, revealing just how much it fits into its own world combing its influences with the unique style of its writer-director and a tone that fascinates me even more.
It takes what would be just the expected laughs that turn up throughout and goes deeper, aware that these characters feel certain things that they don’t know how to put into words, they all have fucked up feelings that they don’t know how to express. AFTERNOON DELIGHT is compelling and alive while also possessing a tone that allows it to be its own thing with a script that is tight and to the point yet always loose enough to explore the characters, to remember that more than anything it’s about those characters. It respects all of them, even the ones who seem like mere caricatures at first, and yet knows that it can only probe so deeply to find out the real secrets, learn what isn’t being said. The interactions never feel easy and the film is much more interested in exploring the faces seen in the Cassavetes-like giant close-ups of her actors than in turning it all into one giant farce, particularly during the extended women & wine sequence where Rachel completely breaks down in front of her so-called friends. An up close connection to McKenna’s world also turns out to be a step too far for Rachel, not as cool for her or as potentially hilarious for us either leading to the undeniable discomfort that can be felt when things go wrong. You can never be certain how much you’re going to get to know some people. Sometimes you realize you didn’t know them at all.
It’s a film about connections natural or forced, in general or at this specific point in time and fittingly the first word we hear is an automated voice stating “connection”--the film being very much set in a world of Twitter and apps and blogs (“Name one good thing that’s come from blogging,” Jeff the app inventor dismissively states) that isn’t secondary to its main concerns as much as a believable acknowledgment that it’s how we’re living right now, particularly in the way Rachel describes her present day existence as being “online” and nothing more. The dialogue throughout is razor sharp and as much as it does feel like a film made by a writer willing to allow a certain amount of improv from the actors Soloway continually displays not only a director’s eye but also a soul that causes her to care for all of her characters. She makes use of the space in the architectural beauty they live in, placing the characters opposite each other in the frame but also with an eye for the little details sprinkled throughout, the quick shot of flies on lox as a brunch party dies down, the look on Hahn’s face as she lies in bed post coital while Radnor collects some change from the side table. That particular shot is a sly, subtle illustration of how much it feels very much about the female point of view while still being very aware of the men around them shrinking into beta maledom—in this film it’s the guys who hug when greeting each other, not the women. Even the deleted scenes on the DVD reveal bits that would have brought out such details if they had remained—one particular shot might have been my favorite moment in the entire film if it had stayed in.
Maybe this particular subgenre, if there even is one, could be termed Silverlake mumblecore along with some SIX FEET UNDER that’s certainly in its DNA and the details feel right, whether the presumably ad-libbed dialogue talking about my favorite local taco place or even the radio in Rachel’s car that’s tuned to KCRW because, well, of course it is (speaking of which, the soundtrack is very KCRW-friendly in all the best ways). Even if I’m not in a place in life to relate to all of it the characters and their world feel continually real, they feel like people, fucked up as they might be which makes something like the reality disconnect in Judd Apatow’s THIS IS 40 all the more plain. That film has an angry encounter with fellow parents as well only in that case the ultimate goal is basically wacky improv whereas in AFTERNOON DELIGHT it strips away the stereotypes to the point where we can’t judge them so simply anymore. The well-off lives of Rachel and Jeff crossed with her own uncertain sexual obsession brings Blake Edwards’ “10” to mind as well—ultimately McKenna is about as much of a blank for Rachel as Bo Derek is for Dudley Moore and in both cases the hoped for connection turns out to be something very different. AFTERNOON DELIGHT could have been played as straight comedy (it certainly still qualifies for the term) and nothing more but it digs deeper, exploring what’s really going on under the skin of the characterizations. Even Jane Lynch as Rachel's therapist, which almost seems like the sort of role you can fill in yourself, plays as much more earnest and genuine in addition to her ultra-sharp comic timing (plus the way Jane Lynch says ‘quinoa’), than you would expect. The film doesn’t answer certain questions and stays in my brain longer as a result. The final shot feels like the most perfectly natural place to leave it on, a feeling that the lead character has genuinely earned, showing us who the movie is about, what it took to get to this place and how much the feeling really matters.
Kathryn Hahn (who, if I’m going to be honest, has ranked third or fourth on my list of pretend girlfriends for some time) has already proved herself to be that sort of actor who can effortlessly go between comedy and drama and here she’s phenomenally brave down to the little physical touches, bringing every palpable ounce of Rachel’s own daily awkwardness to life. Juno Temple balances between showing us just enough of McKenna to flesh her out and yet still keeping her an enigma, playing moments in ways that seem specifically designed to throw the other actors off balance while keeping the character totally unapologetic and refusing to allow the film to judge her. Temple is absent from the chummy DVD audio commentary between Soloway and Hahn which feels weirdly appropriate as if it keeps the actress an enigma as well. Josh Radnor plays the distracted puzzlement around the whole situation just right, giving him the chance to show more range than he was ever able to do on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and when he finally lays in on Rachel about whatever she’s done he does a great job. It’s a terrific cast all around—Michaela Watkins has been a secret weapon in various films and TV shows lately and here she continually adds layers to what at first seems like simple comic relief while Jessica St. Clair has a completely effortless style as Rachel’s best friend. John Kapelos, familiar from many credits including THE BREAKFAST CLUB is one of McKenna’s clients, balancing the tightrope between sleaze and just a guy who’s perfectly happy to pay for her. Correctly, the movie doesn’t judge him either.
Near the end of the DVD audio commentary Soloway and Hahn talk about the film playing at the Los Feliz 3 which was actually where I saw it. Just another reminder that it’s a world I partly recognize and that I hope there are more films to come from the director in this oddly personal Cassavetes-Mazursky-Edwards vein. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a film featuring strong female characters written and directed by a woman—that fact should be more incidental than it is in 2014 but unfortunately I suppose it still isn’t. If someone is going to create roles this good for someone like Kathryn Hahn not to mention other underutilized actresses out there like Illeana Douglas and Lisa Edelstein it might as well be her. Right now she’s producing a series for Amazon that she created entitled TRANSPARENT and the way things are now in getting films made I can’t say I blame her but, regardless, Soloway is a voice that I hope we get more films from. I hope some of them are set in Silverlake too. At its best AFTERNOON DELIGHT is clever and funny but also intense, satisfying and somewhat cathartic. Just like that long ago day in Griffith Park. And this time around, I know that I’ll remember it.

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