SAN ANTONIO — Folks insist on saying they like to turn their brains off when going to the movies. The people behind “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” – an anti-romcom skillfully treading the line between loveliness and raunchiness while busting through Hollywood conceptions about leading ladies of a certain age – are making it a point to wonder, just in the nick of time: Whatever happened to being turned on at the multiplex every once in a while?
That such a movie is releasing on Hulu and such a question is being asked at the onset of the summer blockbuster season is either cheeky as hell on the part of the film’s distributors (it premiered at virtual Sundance earlier this year) or a funny twist of fate that nonetheless underscores a universal truth that American audiences have come to willingly accept about the biggest, brashest of movies: Our superheroes, caped or otherwise, are a suspiciously chaste cohort. So is Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a flustered, fidgety former Sunday school teacher who we meet settling into a hotel room, preparing for the arrival of a most handsome young man. This is Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a contemporary courtesan whose cheekbones must have been chiseled from marble, to say nothing of his sensitivity. Her request for him is reminiscent of a challenge: She wants to know what full sexual pleasure is like, for once in her life.
Nancy and Leo will meet a handful of times over the course of director Sophie Hyde’s briskly paced and humorously titled movie, which thrives on the conceit that its central duo is separated as much by their attitudes about the implications of sex as they are in their years. It might initially seem insignificant that Nancy has never experienced peak physical pleasure when the same can be said for 98% of Hollywood projects made in the last decade. But in the hands of Hyde and screenwriter Katy Brand, the high-concept idea – which fully earns its R-rating once 90 minutes have gone by – becomes fertile ground for an unexpectedly wise story of intergenerational epiphany.
It helps to have Thompson, even mightier here than she was in last year’s “Cruella” and proving she can still toss a sharply critical glance of incredulity with the best of ‘em, to say nothing of her wildly good comedic timing. There’s nary a minute where you don’t believe Nancy has doubts about getting into bed with a man who could be her son, and nary a moment where you don’t suspect she would like nothing less than to succumb to the very thing she’s nervous about. This is one of her most deeply felt and revealing (in more ways than one) roles in some time.
The disarmingly suave McCormack, for his part, is a bonafide revelation as the sweetest sex worker there ever was. An actor largely known for television roles up to this point, the Irish actor understands there’s resonance in playing the gigolo like a robot constantly computing the sexiest lines when a genuine character is there, simmering under the pristine surface.
If only Nancy can buy into the value of spontaneity Leo lives by, she might discover a new side of life that goes beyond the carnal. She has an agenda to their meetings (literally so, in one of the funniest scenes that sees her running down the most R-rated to-do list you can imagine) while Leo comes to it like a dance. Vulnerability is a powerful trait, and Hyde makes a compelling case that it can be a powerfully cinematic one too. It’s one thing that Leo’s bare chest represents something far different than that of Chris Evans’ in “Captain America”; it’s another thing entirely that in Nancy and Leo’s differing approaches to identity, life and sex, you can glimpse an ideological conflict that reflects the film industry today just as much as it comments on that industry’s relative neutering.
This isn’t to say “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” isn’t compelling on its own meet-cute-turned-upside-down terms. Leo’s philosophy that desire is a spectrum is just one metatextual fold in the movie’s many sheets of commentary, but Hyde and Brand make their bed on a central dynamic as funny as it is frank, as refreshing as it is defiant. That “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” sometimes can’t avoid feeling engineered as a response to the biggest movies drawing crowds this month is a small price to pay when you remember how needed cinematic course-corrections like these continue to be. The film is elegantly shot, ironically so, and Hyde’s visual style is dynamic enough to overcome the single-location setting. The score is gentle, the aesthetic in the realm of an Armani spring ad. I’m sure I heard birds tweeting at one point.
This all merely forms the arena for the sparks that jump off Brand’s screenplay. There’s a foreplay to her writing, sharply delivered by Thompson and McCormack, who turn the delivery of dialogue into an entertaining conversational tango imbuing one of cinema history’s most enduring questions – will they or won’t they? – with real dramatic consequence, however trivial it may seem at the onset. “To being empirically sexy,” Leo toasts in their first meeting, an early indication that Brand knows full well the comedic value of carefully chosen vocabulary. The blooming mutual respect is part of the movie’s unexpected reward, and also a major reason why its toothier later scenes have real emotional bite to them.
Nancy and Leo are defined by much more than the comedic potential of their relationship, it turns out. There’s a push-and-pull to their conversations that reflects unspoken tensions about who between them has more life experience, and over time it reveals cracks in their respective defense mechanisms. That focus on character helps elevate this funny and frank movie to something grand, and not just a film with a bit of good luck on its side.
"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" is now available to stream on Hulu. It's rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language. Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Starring: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland
Directed by Sophie Hyde, written by Katy Brand
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