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'Anora' Review

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June 7, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Anora premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in theaters on October 18.

Love him or hate him (I’m curious if there’s anyone out there who hates him), you’ve got to admit that Sean Baker knows how to open a movie. The catchy rhythms of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” jolt Red Rocket’s Mikey Saber awake on his long-haul bus trip from LA to the middle of nowhere in Texas. The lyrics of “You’re probably going to start a fight / I know this can’t be right / Hey baby, come on.” reverberate throughout Mikey’s subsequent actions. But as much as you despise what he’s doing - just like the song - you can’t help but tap along with him.

Baker’s newest work, Anora, takes an almost identical strategy. The high-energy beat of Take That’s “Greatest Day (Remix)” blasts from the theater speakers as Baker’s signature red-colored cursive opening studio logos bleed across the black screen. The words “Today this could be, the greatest day of our lives,” take over as we fade in on a sex worker giving a lap dance to a very enthusiastic customer. The camera glides from right to left, revealing an assembly line of workers and their male patrons. Everyone is living in euphoria at this moment, the world melting away with each strut of their bodies. I’m pretty sure Greta Gerwig’s Cannes jury only needed these initial thirty seconds to declare this their Palme d’Or winner.

For our titular Anora (Mikey Madison), or Ani, as she likes to be called, her night is only just beginning. As the only dancer in her club who can understand Russian on account of her family’s Uzbek background, Ani gets assigned to be the personal escort for a high-rolling Russian fuckboy looking to blow his oligarch father’s money on as many girls and drugs as he can. His name is Ivan/Vanya (Mark Eydelshteyn) and he speaks in respectably broken English, dons a haircut and skinny frame akin to Timothée Chalamet, and is obviously a rich kid who’s been handed everything on a silver platter all his life. But he pays handsomely and treats Ani with respect, so how can she say no?

Things escalate from there, including a New Year’s Eve party at Vanya’s luxurious beachfront mansion and a week-long escapade at the swankiest spots in Las Vegas. Baker’s documentarian aesthetics keep this Pretty Woman-esque tale of young love grounded within reality. The club Ani works at is dingy and run by a pretty scummy group of older guys. And Vanya is no Richard Gere, acting more like a bratty child than the respectable man he’s been sent to America to become.

But like any night of ecstasy, the sobering reality of the morning sun eventually sets in. A hasty marriage between Ani and Vanya at one of those seedy Las Vegas chapels brings out the wrath of Vanya’s neglectful parents, who sick their hired goons/caretakers to have the couple’s marriage annulled. They say you truly get to know someone during a moment of weakness, and Ani learns a lot about Vanya once the music stops. A series of misadventures ensue over several hours, more than enough to fill the 139-minute runtime, but not enough to make it wholly justifiable. It’s hard for a comedy, even a truly laugh-out-loud one such as this, to be great when 25% of its runtime could have been trimmed.

Madison is always in her element as she follows Baker’s on-the-ground improvisational rhetoric. She delivers a true movie star performance, a quality Baker always seems to find in his often unknown (or underseen) stars. That level of showmanship goes a long way to carry the zaniness. The entire product reminded me of Triangle of Sadness, another Palme d’Or winner that often overstayed its welcome. But both that film and Anora always stand out from the rest of the pack and send you on a high note, which can never go unappreciated.

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I’m pretty sure Greta Gerwig’s Cannes jury only needed the initial thirty seconds to declare this their Palme d’Or winner.
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