‘How to Please a Woman’ Film Review: Aussie Sex Comedy Doesn’t Know What It Wants

The film can’t decide whether it’s celebrating or mocking the erotic desires of middle-aged women

How to Please a Woman
David Dare Parker/Brainstorm Media

The women of Renée Webster’s “How To Please A Woman” have problems. Multiple women, multiple problems: they’re disrespected at work, they’re depressed about their bodies, their husbands don’t give them the time of day, and on top of everything, their homes are messy. If only there was a service, or a person, who could solve all of this. Lucky — maybe — there is.

Enter Gina (Sally Phillips), a newly 50-year-old woman with an idea and a plan. When her friends misguidedly hire a male escort for her birthday, Gina makes him clean her house shirtless rather than please her in other ways. Isn’t this what women really want anyway? From there, she turns that venture into a business, hiring a group of eager men from a recently shut-down moving company to be the cleaners and helpers. Only her friends are perhaps more interested in the crew for the sex than the cleaning.

The plotting is convoluted but the thesis is simple — society is ignorant and disrespectful to the needs and wants to women, especially women over a certain age. Gina and her peers, most of whom hang out in the locker room at their swim club, are prone to doldrums and resentment. They have everything they need, but why aren’t they happy?

That women should be listened to is not a particularly new thing to say, and the film often harkens back to both “Magic Mike XXL” and the more recent “Good Luck To You, Leo Grande,” two films about listening to women. “How To Please A Woman” even poaches “Pony” for a strip-cleaning scene.

Phillips — a staple in the British comedy scene perhaps best known to American audiences for her role on “Veep,” though she’s also an excellent contestant on “Taskmaster” — is saddled with the most joyless part in the film, a mopey straight-woman compared to her cleaners’ wackiness and her female peers’ wanton wants. Her performance is the real hook of the film, though, and Phillips brings a tender humanity to Gina, who is working through a midlife crisis with kindness and optimism.

It’s refreshing, too, to see her with her fellow swim-mates, all women of a certain age who not only look their age but also appear naked on screen with no bashfulness or judgment. That “How To Please A Woman” wants to show how to please all types of women, regardless of shape or age, is something to be commended.

Unfortunately, “How To Please A Woman” relies too heavily on gendered tropes. Quite a few of the sex scenes in the film are played for laughs, and the men in question in Gina’s business are real dopes. Much of the film is dedicated to these middle-aged women teaching the men both how to clean their apartments and how to pleasure them. Seems like a lot of work for everyone involved. Gina’s business, which is functionally managing a group of amiable sex workers, glosses over the realities for those men, arguing that this is a job basically any man would enjoy. It’s an overly simplistic view of sex work, but these are overly simplistic men. If they aren’t asking questions, then maybe neither should the audience.

Several of the characters are lacking in interiority as well, falling into either tropes or cardboard cutouts of what people act like. Gina’s friends, though peppy and fun, are relatively interchangeable with one another, their desires all parroting each other’s. There’s a suggestion also that these women have been failed by their relative economic independence, that their liberation has actually made them busier and less satisfied, though none of them seem all too smitten with their careers. At times, it feels like the film makes a case for a good domestic life over a good professional life, when those things ought not be at odds with each other.

Though this is not the kind of film that seeks to be political, it’s seeking laughs, of which there are a few but not a ton. The cringe comedy is overstated and uncomfortable, much more in line with Judd Apatow’s work of the late aughts where it was funny to imagine a successful woman getting with a do-nothing man. But when the film pivots to its more dramatic scenes, there’s a twinge of insincerity. Without a commitment to its tone, “How To Please A Woman” might help its titular woman, but it leaves its audience quite dissatisfied.

“How to Please a Woman” opens in U.S. theaters July 22 and on VOD July 29.