Two Movies to Charm Your Weekend

Emma Thompson in "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" and Cooper Raiff's "Cha Cha Real Smooth."

Two Movies to Charm Your Weekend

The Nut Graf: “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (streaming on Hulu, ***1/2 stars out of ****) is an Emma Thompson lovefest in all the most obvious and unexpected ways. A Sundance award-winner, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (streaming on Apple TV+, *** out of ****) marks the feel-good arrival of writer-director-star Cooper Raiff.

Two sweet-natured human comedies debut on streaming platforms today, both well worth your time, but I should also mention that one of my favorite movies of 2021, Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” with a phenomenal lead performance by Oscar Isaac, is available for streaming on HBO Max (and for rent elsewhere). “Happening,” a tough-minded drama about a young woman’s search for an abortion in 1960s France, arrives presciently on demand June 21. And if you’re anywhere on Cape Cod, the Provincetown Film Festival  winds up June 19, with a stellar lineup of features and documentaries just ahead of their theatrical releases. Plus director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) in conversation with John Waters, and I don’t know how you top that.

Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”

When did you fall in love with Emma Thompson? The crying scene in “Love Actually” (2003)? Margaret Schlegel meeting the world with honor and clarity in “Howard’s End” (1992)? Elinor Dashwood, the “sense” of “Sense and Sensibility” (1995). I lucked out and caught Thompson in her 1989 debut, an uproarious and criminally little-known comedy called “The Tall Guy,” in which she has a very funny room-destroying sex scene with Jeff Goldblum. (Must devote a post to that movie soon.) She is one of the most blissfully sane performers of her generation, even when her characters are laboring under delusions, and her latest film, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” is a showcase for Dame Emma at her wittiest, most heartsore best. I just watched it for the second time and, really, it’s on my short list for the year’s top 10.

I admit it’s not the most sprawlingly cinematic film of 2022. In fact, Thompson is one of only two people onscreen for the most part. The movie, which arrives on Hulu today, casts Thompson as Nancy Stokes (she says), a widow in her mid-50s who has decided to shake up her staid English life and hire a male prostitute for the day. The screenplay (by British writer-comedian Katy Brand) covers several encounters, unfolding in several hotel rooms over a couple of weeks, as Nancy struggles mightily with shedding her clothes and her inhibitions.

The sex worker, code-named Leo Grande, is played by Daryl McCormack with a youthfulness and ease that’s downright seductive. He’s smooth, relaxed, and charming, just on the edge of glib. A professional but clearly someone who enjoys his job and is good at it in both body and mind. And in small, revealed moments, we sense the actual person Leo might be, with garden variety insecurities and a past whose wounds are banal and defining. As he copes with this intelligent and incredibly nervous upper-middle-class woman, wishing she could feel sexy but aware of every sweat-panic thought racing through her head, we come to see Leo as a kind of therapist, one with killer abs, yes, but also an understanding of human vanity and fear. The movie’s about trying to get to a place – intimacy – too many of us stupidly resist.

Here's the thing about Thompson: She’s one of those actors who make you forget anything except the moment that’s happening right here, right now. “Am I a disappointment?” Nancy asks Leo with the deflated air of a woman for whom being disappointed is a survival tactic. Thompson finds the pathos in Nancy but —  more importantly – the comedy that shows the character hasn’t entirely thrown in the towel. “82?!?” she splutters on hearing the age of the oldest woman who has hired Leo out, and yet the number feeds Nancy’s flickering self-regard. In the immortal words of Monty Python, she’s not dead yet.

As she becomes more comfortable with Leo, she decides she wants to know the real him, and that of course is the last person he wants to show her. “Who are you out there?” Nancy asks him, breaking the unspoken rules and chipping away at the smooth stud edifice that is “Leo Grande.” McCormack, best known as Isiah Jesus in “Peaky Blinders,” is a quiet revelation here, letting us see the backstory of a sad young man only in his eyes and only when Nancy’s not looking. Leo’s life is a disappointment too, but instead of hiring a person to nullify the pain with pleasure, he’s become that person, and the invention is a point of pride. The film builds to a rapprochement between Nancy and Leo that feels both honorable and earned, and it’s strikingly, empathetically honest about the desires, physical and psychological, that come with aging. “I don’t want to be 16 again,” Nancy confesses to Leo at one point. “I want the feeling of being 16 again. That power I didn’t know I had.”

This is some of the finest acting Thompson has done, not lacking in vanity but grappling with it, as a character, an actor, a woman, and a human. She lets her gray show and her crow’s feet and her late-life spread and, towards the end, the whole kit and kaboodle in a moment that is weary and accepting and above all truthful. The scene and Thompson will be called “brave” – already have – and I suppose they are, which I find a little depressing, because, really, it’s just a body, a female human body with some miles on it, and that is the essence of its beauty. In a culture that fetishizes youth and perfection, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” constitutes a radical act: It insists on the magnificence of the ordinary.

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth”

Pleading eyes, a toothsome grin, an earnest post-adolescent beard: Cooper Raiff is the kind of kid you’re torn between wanting to hug and tempted to punch. And I think he knows this. It’s one reason “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff’s sophomore outing as a writer-director-star, is not only bearable in its bittersweet suburban sensitivity but more generous and complicated than its doubters might allow. The movie’s a bona fide crowd-pleaser, winner of a 2022 Sundance audience award, which only makes those people who prefer their movies to be more crowd-challenging sharpen their knives. And it’s true that this particular genre (which for lack of a succinct phrase could be summed up as “I just finished college and I’m directionless and I think I’ll fall in love with an older woman”) has been done to death in the 55 years since “The Graduate.” Anyway, for a film with such a soft, chewy center, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has turned out to be surprisingly polarizing. It’s a genuinely nice movie, which despite “Ted Lasso” (or because of it) is a problem for some. (“An exemplar of American indie entertainment at its most canned and solipsistic,” Manohla Darghis, New York Times.) Anyway, now that it’s in limited theatrical release and available on Apple TV+, you can make up your own mind. And you should. The kid’s got some kind of future.

Raiff plays Andrew, who not only has moved back home after graduation but is sleeping on a mattress in his little brother’s room. The brother (a thoroughly charming Evan Assante) is 13, so there’s a bar mitzvah every other weekend, and tagalong Andrew finds he’s actually pretty good at getting people up and dancing, to the point where parents start offering to pay for his services. Is this actually a job? Andrew’s mother (Leslie Mann) and much-abused stepfather (Brad Garrett, priceless) seem to think so, and being a semi-professional tummler at least puts Andrew in proximity to Domino (Dakota Johnson), a young single mother with an autistic middle-school daughter named Lola. Lola is played by a first-time actress named Vanessa Burghardt, who’s also autistic, and by far the sweetest and most affecting scenes in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” involve her interactions with Andrew, who becomes her friend and occasional babysitter. In an earlier era, the part would almost certainly have been played by a neurotypical performer and would likely have been written as a wise “magic child.” By contrast, Burghardt brings a gentle charisma and unfussy honesty to the role, and Raiff is as willing to meet the actress on her terms as Andrew is willing to meet Lola on hers. If you’re looking to make a case that onscreen representation matters, this is a good place to start.

Vanessa Burghardt and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth”

The rest of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” follows a more familiar indie/Sundance playbook, but it does so with an empathy that’s disarming and widely spread around. Raiff is one of those filmmakers who just likes people and he doesn’t find much use for villains except for one minor bar mitzvah bully and his entitled dad. He’s also interested in exploring male vulnerability, which is fairly daring in a culture neurotically obsessed with machismo. Raiff’s feature debut, the woefully titled “Shithouse” (2020), concerned a college freshman wracked by homesickness and might have been called “Andrew: The Early Years.” As in that film, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” sees romance as a lifeline out of crippling loneliness but also a way to connect with someone struggling on their own. The love interest played by Dylan Gelula in “Shithouse” is also an older woman (by one year; she’s a sophomore) but a confirmed cynic; in the new movie, Domino has a child and a fiancé (Raúl Castillo) who’s a certified grown-up, but Andrew represents the youth she never quite had and can’t quite give up. Johnson, who has inherited a guileless, girlish naturalism from her mother, Melanie Griffith, is unexpectedly moving here, and Domino’s scenes with Andrew are electric with eroticism but something more unexpected: Compassion. Whatever Cooper Raiff is up to, it’s catching.

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