‘Anora’ Review: Sean Baker Whips Up a Wild Stripper Romance Thriller Comedy, or Something Like That

If you think that Sean Baker is the guy who makes gritty, naturalistic little movies about marginalized communities, “Anora” will give you reason to think you’re right. But once it’s done that, it may turn around and make you change your mind, because the film is also big and bold and glossy and very funny, a raucous comedy unlike anything else in Baker’s filmography.

It’s one of the most entertaining movies to play in Cannes this year, and also one of the most confounding: part character study of the title character (Mikey Madison), a sex worker from Brighton Beach who falls for rich Russian playboy Ivan (Mark Eydelshteyn); part look into the world of the super-rich, an arena Baker has studiously avoided in films like “Tangerine,” “The Florida Project” and “Red Rocket”; part escalating nightmare comedy reminiscent of ’80s gems like “After Hours” and “Married to the Mob.” It swings wildly back and forth while also hanging onto its heart, and it’s just too much fun to worry about how much Baker is cramming into its two hours and 18 minutes. (It justifies the length.)

The title character, who goes by Ani because she thinks Anora is “a stupid Uzbek name,” works in a strip joint outside New York City and freelances after hours selling more intimacy. Ani is a matter-of-fact sex worker who chews gum and blows bubbles while giving lap dances — and because she speaks a little Russian, her boss in the club asks her to wait on Ivan Zakharov, the son of a Russian oligarch who loves the lap dance enough that he asks her to come to his stunning mansion the next day.

A couple more dates and a wild New Year’s Eve party turns into a week-long, $15,000 gig to be his “horny girlfriend,” and somehow they’re both smitten enough that they tie the knot during a whirlwind, spur-of-the-moment trip to Las Vegas. And then word gets back to mom and dad in Russia that their son has married a hooker. And then things get crazy.

While Ani’s milieu isn’t an unfamiliar one in the Sean Baker filmography, the mansion and the private plane and the high-roller suites are — and so is the style, with Baker’s usual rough energy replaced by a choreographed, almost music-video slickness at points. The film adapts to its settings and gets all sleek until a trio of the oligarch’s fixers arrive to annul the marriage by any means necessary. And that’s when things go completely off the rails.

Baker has put plenty of raucous, comedic sequences on screen in the past — Simon Rex in “Red Rocket” was a blast, and the kids in “The Florida Project” were wild things — but he hasn’t done a set piece as hysterical as the extended one that takes place when top-dog enforcer Toros, sad-sack Garnick and thuggish Igor invade Ivan’s mansion to bring an end to the newlyweds’ bliss.

Ivan splits and leaves Ani to fend for herself, and the result is uproarious. It’s marvelously plotted chaos on a classic slapstick level, but with beats in which we actually learn things about these characters. (A single word from Igor, played by Yura Borisov, is enough to suggest that there’s more to him than we realize.)

The motley crew forge though an escalating and wildly entertaining series of catastrophes, from vomiting (always funny) to parking tickets (unexpectedly hilarious). They also give Madison (“Scream 5,” “Better Things”) countless chances to make Ani a real force of nature, and to let Borisov (“Compartment No. 6”) very quietly steal the second half of the film.

At a certain point, “Anora” seems to be slowing down and dragging out — but as Ani demonstrates to Ivan early in their relationship, sometimes slowing down can make things more pleasurable. What initially seemed to be an anticlimactic homestretch turns into a surprisingly moving and emotionally complicated coda, the likes of which you don’t expect after the craziness that had preceded it.

“Anora” is one of two movies in Cannes’ Main Competition that are being released by Neon, the company that has distributed the last four Palme d’Or winners, “Parasite,” “Titane,” “The Triangle of Sadness” and “Anatomy of a Fall.” (The Iranian film “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” is the other 2024 Neon film in competition.) That doesn’t mean that Baker’s film should be considered a Palme frontrunner at this point, but it’s something just as valuable: a thoroughly fun and provocative time at the movies.

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