by Kathie Smith
There is a subtle form of movie magic in some films that has nothing to do with critical acclaim, popular success, or visceral entrapment, but rather an unabashed conventionality that entertains despite itself. Fading Gigolo is one movie that fully deserves this backhanded compliment. Its farcical premise—Woody Allen serendipitously starts pimping John Turturro, solving both character’s financial woes—is likely to cause more repulsion than interest in most viewers. But when the lights come down and the movie nostalgically places us in a New York City neighborhood bookstore while Allen and Turturro snap to the expected grid of their characters, it’s like pulling on a pair of old comfortable shoes.
Director: John Turturro
Producers: Bill Block, Paul Hanson, Jeffery Kusama-Hinte
Writer: John Turturro
Cinematographer: Marco Pontecorvo
Music: Abraham Laboriel, Bill Maxwell
Editor: Simona Paggi
Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Tonya Pinkins, Bob Balaban
Premiere: September 7, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 18, 2014
US Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
The movie opens as Murray (Allen) and his friend Fioravante (Turturro) are packing up the final items in Murray’s rare bookstore in order to close up shop. They commiserate with each other over the inevitable sign of the times, and Murray offhandedly tells Fioravante that his dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), a beautiful older woman, is looking for a man to share a ménage à trois with her friend Selima (Sofía Vergara). Murray, something of a compulsive, anxiety-ridden fixer, thinks this is the perfect job for Fioravante. As if reading the audience’s mind, Fioravante asks Murray, “Are you on drugs?” Feigning sincerity as only Allen can do, Murray insists that, regardless of his Zoloft, he is stone cold serious.
After considering his options with the closing of the bookstore and only a part time job at a florist to support himself, Fioravante sadly looks at his check register and starts to reconsider marketing his sexual healing. Accepting Turturro’s Fioravante as a stud muffin acts as the story’s joke and conceit. Turrurro, who directs, writes and stars, is not above ribbing his own lack of handsome attributes, but he also goes a bit too far in cultivating his character into the antithesis of a cretinous beefcake: he cooks (kosher if necessary), dances, reads books, arranges flowers, speaks romance languages, and, if he straightens his lopsided face, is in fact uniquely good looking. Even though it’s all a little bit of a stretch, Turturro’s metrosexual bravado is a breath of fresh air to the litany of dude-bro characters that Hollywood expects us to accept, as a matter of course, as God’s gifts to women.
Dr. Parker gives Fioravante “a try” and, of course, it goes swimmingly, causing Murray and Fioravante to expand their business venture. Taking advantage of these lonely women starts to plague Fioravante’s conscience, but then he meets Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a cloistered orthodox Jewish woman whose husband died two years ago. She busies herself with raising her six children, but Murray convinces her to try “a healer” he knows to help her move beyond the death of her husband. The tender and innocent relationship that develops between Fioravante and Avigal amongst a certain amount of vulgarity has a paperback romance charm that, once again, depends on a willingness to acquiesce to dramatic license.
Turturro and Allen work effortlessly off each other within their respective roles of middle-aged hangdog and ought-to-be-old-enough-to-know-better clown. Allen, likely uncredited for some of the writing in this movie, appears to be the biggest influence on Fading Gigolo in its attempt to evoke a funny yet bittersweet effect. One sequence in which Murray is kidnapped and faces a Haredi tribunal (with Bob Balaban stepping in for a small role as Murray’s lawyer) for his corruption of Avigal seems to be more about Allen than it is Murray. But for Allen fans (even those of us who have trouble reconciling his personal life) it’s hard to resist his effervescent and sharp-witted humor—watching him negotiate a baseball game between a group of street-wise African American kids and sheltered orthodox Jewish kids is nothing short of hilarious.
Unfortunately the women in Fading Gigolo are a little more than cardboard cutouts; Dr. Parker and Selima are uncomplicated desperate housewives, and Avigal a flawless flower ready to blossom in Fioravante’s company. Turturro reserves the lighter touch for his own character, who quietly expounds an aging and unfulfilled sadness that feels sincere and transmits beyond his gender. However, compared to the spirited films on his directorial resume (notably the wacked-out Romance & Cigarettes and Illuminata), Turturro takes very few risks other than mixing a little humorous absurdity with solemn melodrama. But at an appropriate 90 minutes, Fading Gigolo achieves a rather purposeful display of ordinary emotional entertainment—a somewhat welcome change to stock-in-trade mode of over-exuberance that dominates cinematic offerings.