Cannes 2024 review: Anora (Sean Baker)

“A film that beyond the occasional chuckle is surprisingly lifeless, no matter how loud it tries to be.”

Sean Baker’s career is filled with small stories about people on the margins, quite often sex workers. Whatever one might think of these films, there is no denying that he treats his characters with the respect they deserve, whatever line of work they are in. In his latest film, Anora, another sex worker is the focal point. In this case the Cinderella story that turns sour is set in the world of the nouveau riche, although it begins with a variation of the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope. As the film develops in all of its loudness and emptiness, for the first time in one of Baker’s films the feeling creeps in that he doesn’t really care for his protagonist, serving us little more than a wild tale and little exploration in the emotional world of the title character. In the end Anora is nothing more than a Pretty Woman for Gen Z that turns into a wild goose chase that might as well have been titled Ani and the Three Stooges. Like Anora‘s protagonist, Emperor Baker has few clothes on.

Ani (Mikey Madison), short for and preferred to her real name Anora, is a stripper in a New York club that attracts men with serious money. Hustling to get her prospective customers into the lucrative private rooms, one night her talent for the Russian language (courtesy of an Uzbek background on her grandmother’s side) is called upon by the manager to attend to a young Russian who is flush with money. This Vanya, nicknamed Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn) quickly falls for Ani, inviting her to his palatial mansion for sex and companionship. With his oligarch parents (it is never made clear where the money comes from) back in Russia, Vanya parties until there’s no tomorrow, and after just a few private meetings asks Ani to be his girlfriend for a week. At a price, of course, but Ani enjoys the lifestyle that is so far removed from her shabby shared apartment all the same. If it’s only for a week, why not make the most of it? This changes when Vanya and his friends fly to Vegas on a whim, and Vanya proposes to Ani out of the blue. She seems to have found her ‘whale’, as one of her colleagues at the strip club calls it.

But then Vanya’s handlers, who were supposed to have kept a close eye on him, get wind of the marriage. Two of the goons, Garnick (Vache Tovmasyan) and Igor (Yura Borisov) show up at Vanya’s place to check the validity of the marriage certificate. When Vanya slips through their fingers, Ani is suddenly stuck with the hired muscle, soon to be joined by the supposed brains of the operation, Toros (Karren Karagulian). Toros convinces Ani that the marriage will be annulled, but for that to happen they must first find Vanya. And thus begins a long trek past basically every establishment in the city that serves alcohol.

Baker tries to add some layers to his shallow screenplay by tentatively developing a relationship between Ani and the sensitive Igor. Not a romantic one, that can never happen after the first thing he does to her is tie her up, and her biting his neck and all. But Igor is seemingly the only one who sees Anora as a real person. To Vanya she is just a toy; while the marriage is genuine, one feels that a divorce is looming as soon as he gets bored with her. The other two of the three stooges that must get the situation resolved before the Russian parents set foot on American soil see her as a pain in their asses. The connection between Igor and Anora never becomes fully tangible though, which makes the emotions of the film’s final scene unearned.

What is also missing is Baker’s usual manic energy. The first 45 minutes are filled with gratuitous sex, nudity, and other party activities, and basically boil down to a long hip hop video filled with booze, drugs, flashy cars, and naked women, or a younger version of The Wolf of Wall Street, yet without Scorsese’s panache. A lifestyle that attracts a certain segment of society, no doubt, but if the point here is to show that that lifestyle is empty, Anora doesn’t succeed; those kids sure seem to be enjoying themselves. Once the hammer drops and the chase for Vanya begins, the film drags on with prolonged scenes of characters shouting profanities at each other and not much else. Throw in some tired clichés (the ubiquitous one stripper who is a bitch to everyone else, for instance), and some incredible stupidity on the part of Vanya’s Russian handlers, and one can’t shake the feeling that this screenplay was written on a bender like the one Vanya goes on when his house of cards falls apart. After that point there is little character development, not even in the protagonist who sees her Cinderella dream disintegrating and desperately tries to cling onto it. Portrayed as a tough cookie who knows how this world works, her Julia Roberts act is phony; the real Anora would have gotten a better deal out of the annulment, given her strong legal position (late in the film she shows she knows this, but immediately caves to the threats of Vanya’s ice-cold mother, a fun role by Darya Ekamasova). The same can be said for the professionalism of the men supposed to keep Vanya in check: in reality these would be hardened criminals who wouldn’t make the string of mistakes these three seem prone to make.

A solid performance by newcomer Mikey Madison, who makes the most of what little beyond yelling is given to her, and a soulful turn by Borisov, easily best-in-show, cannot save a film whose shallowness is stretched thin over too long a runtime, made by a filmmaker who seemingly watched the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street one too many times and thought, “I can do that.” It results in a film that beyond the occasional chuckle is surprisingly lifeless, no matter how loud it tries to be.