Adult comedy Anora is a ‘more real Pretty Woman’

(Image credit: Courtesy Cannes Film Festival)

(Credit: Courtesy Cannes Film Festival)

US director Sean Baker’s latest film exploring the world of sex work has been greeted rapturously at the Cannes Film Festival – and after great reviews for his previous work, it could be his breakout commercial hit.

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Some writer-directors specialise in films about superheroes, others specialise in films about cowboys. Sean Baker specialises in films about people who have sex for money. They are invariably sympathetic, credible and chaotically funny slices of life, hence Tangerine (2015), The Florida Project (2017) and Red Rocket (2021) have garnered rave reviews and cult followings, even if they haven’t been box-office smashes. Baker’s latest film, Anora, is earthier than ever, so it might not buck that trend, but this adults-only screwball comedy is so likeable and entertaining that it might just reach a wider audience, and it might just win a prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s awards ceremony today, having premiered there on Tuesday.

If nothing else, it should make a star of its leading lady, Mikey Madison, who appeared in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019) and the rebooted Scream (2022), but is a revelatory force of nature here. She plays Ani, a twentysomething stripper from Brooklyn with a mustard-thick New Yawk accent and so much sassy charm that her quick-witted conversation is almost as attractive to her clients as her other assets. Baker being Baker, the club where she works is convincingly dingy and sleazy, and the services being offered are shown explicitly, which makes a change from the more glamorous yet prim clubs that crop up in some TV dramas. But it isn’t horrifying or dangerous, which makes a change from the dives that crop up in crime thrillers. Ani and her colleagues are essentially safe and happy in their work.

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Still, that’s not to say that they don’t fancy making some extra money on the side. One night, Ani’s boss instructs her to cosy up to a young Russian, Vanya (Mark Eidelstein), because she can speak Russian herself, and after he has had the VIP treatment, he offers to pay her to have sex with him in his house. This doesn’t seem like a bad idea, as Vanya is an exuberantly friendly goofball who could be Timothée Chalamet’s gawky and gangly brother. And it seems like a better idea when she catches sight of his luxury mansion.

It turns out that Vanya is the son of an oligarch, and while his parents are in Russia, he is eagerly spending their cash in the US. Like a far more believable version of Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, he asks Ani to be his girlfriend for a week, and like a far more believable version of Julia Roberts’ character, she has a blast as he hosts druggy parties, and hires a private jet to fly his buddies to Las Vegas. For a while, you could mistake Anora for a bawdy romantic comedy. The less you know about what happens next, the better, but suffice it to say that Vanya’s parents send their stateside henchmen to calm the situation down, and they end up having the opposite effect.

ANORA

Director: Sean Baker

Cast: Mikey Madison, Mark Eidelstein, Yuriy Borisov

Run time: 2hr 19m

Anora fizzes with energy and laugh-out-loud moments, but it isn’t recommended for anyone with high blood pressure. It builds into the kind of hectic farce in which not just one person is stressed: everyone is stressed. Baker also keeps the misadventures going for a good 20 minutes too long. Towards the end of the film’s two-and-a-quarter hours, viewers may get the creeping sense that he couldn’t decide how to end the story, so he kept adding scenes and hoping for the best.

What stops Anora becoming an upsetting ordeal is some unexpected sweetness, and the firecracker character of Ani, who is indomitably positive, fearless and aggressive throughout. It comes to something that you start to feel sorry for the three tough Russians who have the job of keeping her and Vanya apart. The film is always closely connected to reality, too, whether it’s giving us an evocative, insider’s tour of Coney Island, or reminding us of the insane levels of entitlement that come with being super-rich: the hard truth that gives Baker’s comedy its tinge of sadness is that some people are too privileged to believe that anyone else matters. Still, you’d have to conclude that if Vanya’s family don’t want anything to do with Ani, then that’s their loss. Bring on the sequel.

★★★★☆

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