So many clichés and sophomoric puns infect Emma Thompson’s sexy new Sundance film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande that it’s hard for this critic to admit that it’s an entertaining, superbly acted film — one that’s memorable enough to warrant an acquisition from a strong arthouse distributor such as Bleecker Street or Focus Features.
Thompson plays Nancy, a widow and retired religious school teacher who has decided to fill in the gaps of her sexual experience. To do so, she hires the titular Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack, making what’s essentially his feature debut), a handsome sex worker whose purpose is to guide her through her checklist of unfulfilled sexual experiences.
The two meet at a hotel, where the uptight Nancy is nervous and the experienced Leo is pretty suave. Nancy isn’t sure of herself, but Leo knows exactly what to say and when to smile. The setup is more than a little predictable, but director Sophie Hyde does a good job with this mostly hackneyed script by Katy Brand. She knows that the reason people will watch this movie — and why it could become a sleeper hit out of Sundance — is the presence of Thompson, who delivers a brave, daring, and memorable performance that will make audiences laugh and cringe in equal measure.
About those groan-inducing moments… we’ve all seen hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories in which the protagonist falls in love with a kind sex worker. Remember Pretty Woman? The genders may be reversed here, but this territory — the idea that sex shouldn’t be shameful — has been well explored on the big screen. The notion that we do not talk frankly enough about pleasure and sensuality, or that people suffocate their own lives with normativity — all of this has been done before, time and again. Brand’s script, however, tries to add unique layers to this kind of time-honored tale in the form of familial complications.
See, Nancy secretly finds her own son boring, and she’s also disappointed with her much-too-wild daughter. Meanwhile, Leo has been shunned by his family, to whom he mostly lies about his true profession. Nancy tells Leo stories about how her husband used to make love to her in the same, boring, selfish, predictable way for the better part of three decades. Leo tells Nancy stories about his clients — male and female — and the variety of personal, shrink-like services for which they hire him. None of this is particularly unique or compelling, and all of it is wholly predictable. So, too, is the movie’s leitmotif — that both of them, despite the situation, need to stop shaming themselves over their relationship (or lack thereof, in Nancy’s case) to sex. Vanity, superficiality, and the desire to have others desire you are also explored to mundane effect.
And yet, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is subtly effective, a two-hour slow burn that stands as a quiet symbol for the orgasm that Nancy took 60+ years to achieve. There are two quite enjoyable things about this film, both of which improbably rescue it from the orgy of cliches it froths in. The first is likely obvious, and that would be Thompson’s performance. What can one say about this wonderful actress, who can credibly portray a sexually unfulfilled older woman without missing a beat? The younger McCormack does well enough to keep up with her, but this is her show. For Thompson to bare herself, literally and figuratively, in such an absolute way takes a certain amount of artistic bravery that gels well with the film’s accept-yourself message, one of its many telegraphed ideas. That one works well, though, because Thompson puts her money where her character’s mouth is. Her casting as a sexually frustrated, somewhat pathetic woman may be improbable, but Thompson sells you on her character and on the idea that you can, in fact, teach an old dog some new tricks. For an older actress in Hollywood, that is no small feat.
The second and most improbable way in which Good Luck to You, Leo Grande works is the entire arc of the story. One wonders, for example, why the first two acts of this film are about sexual acceptance but are so devoid of, um, sex. One wonders why the characters talk and talk and talk about doing the deed, but never actually do it… until they do. At that point, the film connects its two characters in a believable, amusing, and even amazing montage of scenes. Finally, after 90 minutes of foreplay, the filmmakers bring it all together, turning the film into an allegory for how long it can take some women (and people in general) to find sexual acceptance after being denied it by society for so many years. The film’s third act is as enjoyable as a drawn-out sexual encounter that maybe felt like it would fizzle out, only to culminate in ecstatic pleasure.
Sexuality is, of course, an essential element of the human experience, which is why it has always had a place onscreen throughout Hollywood history, from black-and-white romance films to modern teen comedies. Many movies have tackled sexual frustration, sexual fulfillment, and sexual liberation, but few have brought it all together in such an enjoyable and ultimately pleasurable package. The real joy of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is watching a seasoned actress do her thing and leave you satisfied.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is currently seeking U.S. distribution. Stay tuned…