Romantic comedies usually strike one or two moods, but in Afterglow, the writer-director Alan Rudolph runs through rainbows of feeling in a single scene. He creates an impish roundelay about two married couples, one middle-aged, one younger, who have affairs with each other’s partners, and though the film has its longueurs, it also has an intoxicating atmosphere of moonstruck possibility. Rudolph directs Afterglow like an ice cream salesman who’s dying for you to sample every flavor in his counter. He tickles your palate with sultriness, with high-gloss farce, with seduction and tenderness and a heartache so piquant it’s like pain melting into pleasure.
The movie casts Nick Nolte as that old cliche, the sexually avid handyman, but the cliche is both a joke and a fakeout. Nolte’s Lucky Mann is a happy lothario, all right, with a sneaky gleam of lust, but he’s achingly aware that the highs of sex won’t keep him out of life’s valleys. Julie Christie, as a former B- movie star who has been married to Lucky for 24 years, plays another variation on the Rudolph heroine, the lovelorn melancholic gone spacey with longing. Christie, though, her grin as naughty as ever, is rueful without being depressive. She purifies sadness, dropping zingers with world-weary aplomb. The two characters, who have been wrenched apart by an unsalvable loss, reach a catharsis of sorts through their encounters with a yuppie couple (Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller) who need a bit of recharging themselves. Afterglow marks the first time since Choose Me, in 1984, that Rudolph’s voluptuously indulgent style — swoony yet acrid, in love with love itself — has coalesced. It was worth the wait.