This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
If you thought the “sex worker with a heart of gold” genre had fully blown its load, then director Sophie Hyde’s latest endeavor will surprise you. Warming hearts and other body parts, she and screenwriter Katy Brand have crafted a delicate, hornt and hilarious two-hander between a widowed retiree (Emma Thompson) and the lean boy-toy of her very modest dreams (Daryl McCormack). Blessed/cursed with a charmingly unwieldy title (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar comes to mind), Good Luck to You, Leo Grande can bobble the more dramatic elements of the pair’s professional and personal relationship, but its feel-good story satisfies to completion.
Nancy plans everything out. The ex-Religious Education teacher never comes unprepared and is prepared to never come. And yet she arrives at her precisely booked hotel room early, prepared with a sexual to-do list. Leo Grande (which, what a great name for a gigolo), in his way, does the same. He arrives with his backpack full of sex toys and mood music, armed with disarming conversational techniques to put his clients at ease.
Over the course of their encounters, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande unpacks how this level of intimacy—not inherently sexual, but with sexual availability acting as a gateway to vulnerability—can be therapeutic. In this would-be secret world—confined to fake names, and the blocky furniture and sterile familiarity of a hotel room—you can be more honest than in real life. The layers of unreality protect you from your own insecurities. Out there, the world is vibrant and a little too intense. Even the delivery trucks are loaded with brightly colored boxes. In the blue-gray hotel room, the only elements that pop are the clothes concealing Grande’s lean body. Brand’s script, sharp and quick with a tonal transition or wholesome gag, is deft at situating its characters in this safe space: Nancy quickly begins unloading her sexual and romantic baggage upon the beautiful young Irishman, and we believe every word.
These early scenes are the movie’s best, undermining Thompson’s initially prickly nerves and McCormack’s suave self-assuredness with cute incidents. They keep catching each other in lightly compromising situations, which level the emotional playing field and allow the two performers to break out the charm. Both characters begin as projections, which gives Thompson and McCormack plenty of depth to work with from the get-go. And that’s good, because they have to be magnetic from the start—we only have eyes for them, a sentiment with more stagelike formal truth than Grande’s repeated claim that their booked time is only about right here and right now.
McCormack’s a gifted physical comedian and a sharp actor of process, his bright green eyes and active face tracking his thoughts, while Thompson gives everything to the great role, stodgy and fidgety anxiety constantly and deliberately distracting from her excitement and burgeoning feelings of sexiness. Together, their dynamic is warmly funny—or at least has an undercurrent of understanding to bring them back whenever their insecurities clash. Hyde conducts this with smooth camera moves and even smoother blocking, highlighting the chemistry between the pair as her set-ups change. Static comedy framing that emphasizes the pair’s awkward physical relation to each other can melt into close-up, gliding, light-through-the-curtains sexuality. The backlight doesn’t mask a thing, but literalizes an erotic fugue’s cottony state of mind. Their sensuality and sense of humor match, electrically beamed at one another through soft hands and staring eyes.
Yet, as everyone but perhaps the depressingly sheltered and repressed Nancy knows, good sex doesn’t inherently imply anything else. As the movie’s double lives continue to meet and tease each other out, Nancy with her confessions of young lust and Leo with the oil rig alibi he gives to his family, they begin colliding in less pleasant and less successful ways. Nancy’s interest in the young man, a mix it seems of misplaced maternal instinct and infatuation, begins to overstep. The film’s more dramatic slides smack of a dishonesty that doesn’t previously arise in the well-handled realism. It doesn’t help that the otherwise lightly styled movie overemphasizes these moments, like when it zooms all the way in on Leo’s distraught face as Nancy becomes self-consciously angry about being given a hard-sell run-around. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is so believable and nuanced with its little moments that these turns feel extreme in comparison.
A painfully cheesy penultimate scene gives way to glorious release, once again highlighting the movie’s best features and boldest choices. Thompson and McCormack’s potent bond elevates the humble film, its talky core giving both the rich foundation of a play. They make the smart film smarter, the sexy film sexier, and the funny film funnier. They even use the word “concupiscence” in a sentence. Multiple times! Even if it takes some negotiation to figure out where its comfort zone lies, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande still finds a hell of a sweet spot.
Director: Sophie Hyde
Writers: Katy Brand
Stars: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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