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‘Mrs. Fletcher’ review: Kathryn Hahn offers a bracing seriocomic lesson in continuing sex-ed on HBO series

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune
Kathryn Hahn stars in “Mrs. Fletcher.”

Kathryn Hahn: goddess, or mere mortal with goddess-like qualities? For those who relish the actress in broadly comic turns (the “Bad Moms” movies) as well as subtler seriocomic roles (“Afternoon Delight,” or as the weary heart and soul of Tamara Jenkins’ superb “Private Life”), the prospect of Hahn showcased in a juicy leading role on an HBO limited series answers the question with a blithe “Who cares? Goddess or mortal, you’re good either way!”

And yet not as good as you’d hope, for reasons having nothing to do with the actress running the show.

Told in seven half-hour episodes, HBO’s “Mrs. Fletcher” has all the ingredients for a sharp, trenchant adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s 2017 novel about the sexual and emotional hunger of a single mother, played by Hahn, sending her privileged bruh of a collegiate freshman son, played by Jackson White, into the adult world.

A trio of incisive directors finesse this material, adapted by Perrotta and five other writers. The concluding two episodes are handled especially well by director Gillian Robespierre (“Obvious Child”). But a generic tidiness confines “Mrs. Fletcher,” which is odd, considering how messy and amusingly reckless these lives become.

Awakening: Hahn does most of the heavy lifting. In episode one it’s literal heavy lifting. In the fictional Massachusetts town of Haddington, empty-nester-in-training Eve stuffs son Brendan’s dorm furnishings into a van outside their house. Brendan can’t be bothered to help pack; he’s in his bedroom, getting a farewell sexual favor from a high school classmate.

Eve, we learn, hasn’t had sex in three years and has been divorced for 10. She’s ripely deserving of an awakening. Fed by an increasingly devoted diet of pornography, her bisexual daydreams float in and out of her daily routine.

She runs a senior center, and as laid out by novelist and screenwriter Perrotta, most every character in “Mrs. Fletcher” — the members of her community college writing group, led by transgender Margo (Jen Richards); her work cohort Amanda (Katie Kershaw); the genial, fogged-in, frequently self-gratifying senior home resident — navigate their online desires and real-world temptations in their own ways.

The see-saw narrative sets up 45-year-old Eve’s dicey flirtation with a vulnerable fellow writing student, 19-year-old Julian (a former classmate of her son’s, played by Owen Teague). On the other track, we follow Brendan’s foray into college, where he finds his blissfully unexamined attitudes about sex, women and the good life (working out, hooking up, screwing off) sorely tested. Jasmine Cephus Jones is wonderful as Chloe, Brendan’s introduction to a higher grade of possibility, as progressive and nuanced as Brendan is not.

Inspired: We know from the opening minutes what Eve’s up against in “Mrs. Fletcher,” coping valiantly as she does with one smug, thoughtless man after another (son; ex-husband; dorm move-in monitor). Brendan has an uneasy relationship with his father’s new family, which includes an autistic half-brother whom he barely knows. Perrotta glances on this, fleetingly, though the HBO adaptation sticks mainly to the continuing sexual education of Eve and Brendan.

Hahn locates some inspired behavioral nuggets throughout: Watch, for example, her flustered, gently slapsticky departure after an unexpected kiss, or her furtive glances at the high-risk texts sent by smitten Julian. There’s both honesty and comedy in such moments, though the look, and vibe, of “Mrs. Fletcher” tends toward facile, glossy David E. Kelly territory, in the lighting, editing and especially the on-the-nose musical cues.

While Eve has sacrificed her own happiness on the altar of obligation, Brendan has floated through his own life as a prince unchallenged by anyone or anything. College, he bemoans, with its relentless inclusivity and expanded horizons, has turned this “straight cis white boy” (Chloe’s words) into “the bad guy” (Brendan’s). Eve, meanwhile, lurches toward her own fulfillment. The less persuasive elements of “Mrs. Fletcher” find the neatly arranged figures acting more like thesis statements and rhyming schemes than actual people. But Hahn, in various states of duress, undress and dawning possibility, has her own ways of turning generalizations into compelling specifics.