‘The Escort’: LAFF Review

Courtesy of The Escort
Sharp performances counterbalance the generic rom-com elements 

A prostitute and a journalist walk into a bar … and forge a partnership of sorts in a romantic comedy set in downtown Los Angeles.

The Escort takes characters who have no interest in romance — or so they claim — through the rom-com paces, from angry meet-cute to partnership of necessity, inevitable falling out and newfound intimacy. Played with charm by Lyndsy Fonseca and Michael Doneger, they’re a high-end prostitute and a sex-obsessed journalist, and their mercenary alliance proceeds as a spirited, mostly convincing, exploration of life in the big city. Though the film grows more predictable as it proceeds, its doses of self-awakening ring true. Set largely in downtown L.A., the good-looking feature was picked up by the Orchard just before its Los Angeles Film Festival bow, with a late-July VOD release planned.

It’s a far less personal work for director Will Slocombe than Cold Turkey, his tale of messy family dysfunction. By turns giddy, formulaic, sobering and keenly funny, the movie has a cool precision that suits a story about people bent on avoiding emotional involvement. Kyle Klutz’s crisp cinematography accentuates the nighttime beauty of the streets, the clear warmth of daylight and the burnished-gold atmosphere of nightspots — posh boites and dive bars alike.

It’s in one of the pricier watering holes that hostility first flares between Natalie and Mitch. She targets him as a potential $1,000-an-hour client, but he’s there for the latest in a long string of anonymous sexual encounters, cost-free and facilitated by a smartphone app. Still, she makes an impression, and after his boss (Iqbal Theba) lays him off with jaw-dropping ineptitude, Mitch seeks her out to make a business proposition.

One of the things screenwriters Doneger and Brandon A. Cohen get right is the Internet Age’s limited options for journalists who want to be decently compensated for their work, although the unemployed Mitch wedges his foot in the door of a glossy mag way too easily. The editor (Sonya Walger) gives him a shot at a staff position, and he sets out to write the spec story on Stanford-educated escort Natalie that he’s confident will win him the job. Natalie agrees to let him follow her around in hopes that he’ll protect her from violent johns, even though the mild-mannered Mitch is hardly bodyguard material. But he and his temporary muse are obviously primed to discover new aspects of themselves.

The screenplay starts out unapologetic about commitment-free sex — those around Mitch and Natalie who aren’t hip to this way of life are the laughable ones, as evidenced in a painfully wrong, cracklingly funny double date that Mitch barely endures with his intolerable cousin (Tommy Dewey). Further testament to foolish entanglement: Natalie’s sweetly ridiculous roommate (Rumer Willis) and her mutually besotted boyfriend (Dean Chekvala).

But as it proceeds, the film grows more concerned with the central characters’ use of sex as a symptom of unresolved issues. Natalie’s backstory adds an up-to-the-minute insight into the Web’s effect on lives, especially for women. Flirting with old-fashioned morality without caving to it, the story nonetheless rushes to reassure us that Natalie is essentially wholesome; her true interest is teaching kids, and she’s the perfect faux girlfriend when Mitch needs to make an impression on his super-wealthy, super-stingy father, Charles (Bruce Campbell). She’s also a supportive and inspiring role model to his motherless teenage sister (Rachel Resheff).

Having made a mint on songs he wrote in the ’70s, Charles now spends it on astrologers, psychotherapists and pot — anything but his son — and is the closest the movie comes to a Southern California caricature. His sudden shift to understanding, supportive dad registers only as a function of screenplay expediency as the film connects its dots and wraps things up in generic fashion.

At its most daring, The Escort shows Mitch and Natalie bonding over STD scares and rating the waiting rooms of clinics where they regularly get tested. Hardly the stuff of conventional romantic intimacy, and the actors pull it off with a mix of brio and pained self-awareness. Fonseca is particularly sharp; when her character faces herself in the mirror, she lends depth to what could have been a hackneyed symbol of reckoning. Slocombe and Klutz frame that turning point to full effect without getting heavy-handed.

More conspicuous is the way they forefront the changing cityscape of downtown Los Angeles — an approach that works as straightforward celebration and character-defining backdrop. A huge mural, commissioned by the band Foster the People and since painted over, makes a striking appearance in the film. Artful in a different way is the lived-in disarray of Mitch’s small apartment (Chris Davis is the film’s art director). Like any romantic comedy, The Escort is driven in part by contrivance, but it gets most of the details right.

Distributor: The Orchard
Production companies: Cloverhill Pictures, Skyhook Prods., Perspective Prods.

Cast: Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Doneger, Bruce Campbell, Tommy Dewey, Rumer Willis, Rachel Resheff, Sonya Walger, Iqbal Theba, Dean Chekvala, Juan Carlos Cantu
Director: Will Slocombe

Screenwriters: Michael Doneger, Brandon A. Cohen
Producers: Blake Goza, Michael Doneger, Mark DiCristofaro
Executive producers: Glenn Edwards, Tyler Konney, Henry Lewis, Jon Marcus, Jane Michaels, Ari Spar
Director of photography: Kyle Klutz
Art director: Chris Davis
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Editor: Brad McLaughlin
Composer: Rob Barbato
Casting director: Mathew Maisto

No rating, 87 minutes

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