"It feels controversial suddenly," actress Emma Thompson's character says at one point in the new movie "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande." She's talking about prepping to give a blowjob to a much younger sex worker she's hired. She could just as easily be referencing how we discuss the realities of sex as a culture in 2022.
First, #MeToo spurred a necessary reckoning with (and rethinking of) power imbalances, especially between women and men whose sexual abuses were previously glossed over. Then the pandemic forced all of us to go without any hanky-panky or remain holed up with our significant others or dabble in COVID-19-risky acts. We spent so much time preoccupied with sex, but so little time enjoying it ourselves.
Enter 'Leo Grande'
From the trailer, the film looks like the kind of tasteful romp for audiences of a certain age that studios trot out every now and then. I'm happy to report it delivers on the naughty bits, albeit teasingly. However, the 63-year-old Thompson goes full frontal in front of the camera for the first time in her long, storied career.
The movie, out on Hulu, smartly probes the deeper insecurities underlying eroticism. Thompson's Nancy Stokes is all dried up, or so she fears: Her husband (and only lover) has prematurely died. She has experienced only the same stiff missionary sex and she's never had an orgasm. She probably never will—or, again, so she thinks.
Nancy is a reflection of a lot of people right now who are taking stock of their sexual pasts and feeling unfulfilled and uncertain of how to find satisfaction without crossing boundaries. Nancy is squirm-inducingly nervous when she first greets the sex worker, Leo (29-year-old Daryl McCormack of "Peaky Blinders"), in a hotel room, insisting this technically illegal arrangement isn't her normal behavior, wondering how he could possibly become erect pill-free with a woman her age ("Am I a disappointment, so to speak?"), and actually asking for permission out loud to touch his chest. Thompson relishes the uncomfortable comedy.
If the three-act plot maps a little too schematically onto four encounters between Nancy and Leo in the same hotel, it's able to get at some genuine emotions under the surface of their banter. Nancy could have a man her age but doesn't want one; she wants a "young body," but without exploiting the man who owns it. Leo insists he has a fulfilling job and isn't being exploited. He encourages Nancy to enjoy herself without thinking about how she's perceived. Yet when Nancy isn't watching, Leo is inspecting his reflection, uncertain of his own performance. They are walking contradictions.
When Nancy asks if Leo Grande is his real name, it's hard not to laugh: Of course, he invented "Grande," and she's assumed a fake identity (though her real name, the "Graduate"-referencing Mrs. Robinson, is even more ridiculous). They're inevitably held back in their sexual pursuits—for him a literal career, for her a chance at self-discovery—by their baggage.
Leo the character and "Leo Grande" the movie ask audiences to ditch sexual hangups, but there's an implicit acknowledgment this is easier said than done. Sex is as messy as the people doing it. When there's finally a violation of personal space between Leo and Nancy, it doesn't necessarily unravel the way you think it would. Nancy is the one saying sorry, and secrets are spilled.
Their sexiest encounter yet
When they meet for the fourth time, they're done playing their respective roles. Nancy drops the older temptress floral blouses, and Leo retires his escort uniform of expensive-looking button-downs and trousers. They dress down in their usual casual clothes, and a funny thing happens: They look hotter than ever. They expose the parts of themselves they were hiding. They enjoy their bodies and stop thinking about themselves as objects being judged by the outside world.
About those naughty bits: Leo has, well, a lot to enjoy. And Nancy is able to stare at herself in a mirror naked without cringing. Spoiler alert: These are objectively attractive people and they look great nude.
The actors are talented at pretending to be awkward, though, they undoubtedly have insecurities in real life. Despite Hollywood's best efforts over the years in training us to find older actors, especially women, undesirable (playing Kathy Bates' body for humiliating laughs in "About Schmidt" is still awful to recall), "Leo Grande" is sure to get even Gen Zers horned up. It's perhaps not surprising that it took two women filmmakers, writer Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde, to show audiences that, yes, Emma Thompson is indeed hot at any age.
The film is refreshingly sex-positive and practices what it preaches, even if it isn't always the best or sexiest movie. It lets us enjoy sex without forcing lust or the propensity to overthink, which is reason enough for praise.
The orgasm that finally rocks Nancy happens when she least expects it, which is, of course, when she's able to stop fixating on it. In "Leo Grande" and in life, pleasure is fleeting, and it's imperative we give ourselves over to it when it comes along.