If you didn’t know that Fading Gigolo was written and directed by its star, John Turturro, you’d probably think that it was a Woody Allen movie: not one of his strongest, but not one of his weakest either. It has the look, capturing the brownstony atmosphere of New York City neighborhoods like the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg without romanticizing them overmuch. It has the requisite tasteful jazz soundtrack.
It’s also intermittently funny, though not in the laugh-out-loud way of Allen’s earlier oeuvre. And it gives Allen – co-starring as Murray, a bookstore owner whose business is going down the tubes – plenty of classically neurotic, rambling Woody Allen-character monologues to utter. (Turturro having portrayed a writer in Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s not unimaginable that he let his elder auteur have a hand in crafting his own lines in Fading Gigolo.) You know that you’ve been here before, and that there are worse places to be.
The premise of the film is patently absurd, founded in male wish-fulfillment of a sort that rears its ugly head repeatedly in Woody Allen comedies but has begun to seem retro at best nowadays. Turturro’s character Fioravante is a florist, genuinely gifted with his hands, as we’re shown in many a tender close-up. But he’s having to work multiple jobs to stay afloat, including helping out in Murray’s floundering bookstore. When Murray’s improbably sexy dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) improbably confides in her patient her fantasy of arranging a ménage a trois with her improbably hot friend Selima (Sofía Vergara), Murray, who has a hustler’s instincts if not the experience, promptly volunteers his friend’s services as a gigolo – without first consulting Fioravante. Most of the rest of the first act consists of Murray’s blandishments and rationalizations, which eventually wear down his recalcitrant friend’s resistance to this wild proposition.
That a quiet, reserved, rather ordinary middle-aged man like Fioravante could warm to a new role as a sought-after gigolo is not what puts this narrative outside the realm of credibility. It’s more the fact that none of the women who line up for his favors at $1,000 or more a pop is ugly, or even just plain; they’re all bored, wealthy hotties who could presumably do a lot better than the gangly, hatchet-faced Turturro without spending any money at it.
Maybe that’s what’s supposed to make this movie funny – though, given Woody Allen’s history, it just feels like more of his usual habit of slapping his own homely-guy-gets-younger-and-better-looking girl fantasies up on the big screen, which got old a long time ago. That fact makes Allen’s presence a bit of a distraction from the movie’s stronger points (not to mention the quibble that this is actually Turturro’s fantasy).
To be fair to the director, his onscreen self is a self-effacing character who gets dragged along in Murray’s manic wake and can’t seem to believe his own success with the ladies, any more than the audience does. The sensitivity and restraint with which he portrays Fioravante would seem a plausible attractant, if only the casting of the women were a bit more, shall we say, democratic, representing a fuller and more realistic spectrum of womanhood. But then they couldn’t get male audiences into the theatres for Fading Gigolo, I suppose.
The film reaches a higher level of artfulness in the sequences involving Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a Hasidic rabbi who makes Murray’s acquaintance when she is forced by custom to sell her late husband’s personal library (though she clearly wants to read the books herself). Unable to modulate his hustle mode once he’s in it, Murray seeks an angle to sell Fioravante’s services to Avigal; he eventually persuades him to hang out his shingle as a masseur.
Getting her first-ever massage proves a personal breakthrough for the repressed Avigal, while her luminous beauty and serene acceptance of her culture’s restrictions on a widow’s behavior provoke Fioravante to begin questioning the ethics of his new business model. Her modest steps outside Williamsburg and all its social rigidity also trigger a shakedown of the “masseur” and his pimp by Dovi (Liev Schreiber), the Hasidic security officer who has long been in love with Avigal.
The movie includes some throwaway scenes involving Othella (Tonya Pinkins), Murray’s black wife (we presume, though it’s not explicitly stated), and her passel of cute, mischievous offspring who aren’t Murray’s; they mostly serve to allow Allen to mug at the kids and flail a baseball bat around. And Bob Balaban, who just has to put on his round Bob Balaban glasses to be funny as heck, has a good moment or two as Murray’s attorney Sol, who swoops in to rescue him from a grim Hasidic tribunal.
But most of the appeal of Fading Gigolo ultimately lies in the chemistry between Turturro and Paradis’ characters, whose gentle, tentative courtship throws the crassness of the rest of the movie into stark and not altogether flattering relief. Their scenes together remind us that the efforts of the SUNY-New Paltz Department of Theatre Arts faculty were not entirely wasted on Turturro all those years ago. While this film will not prop up his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most consistently amusing character actors in the way that his work with Spike Lee and the Coen brothers does, neither is it an embarrassment to its maker.