Fading Gigolo

May 10, 2014
John Turturro in 'Fading Gigolo' (2014)
John Turturro in 'Fading Gigolo' (2014)

New York is a city that has dealt with the problem of difference by dividing itself into tribes and villages. That tribalism is gently satirised in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, which is not a sex comedy but a comedy of ethnicity.

Turturro plays Fioravante, a laid-back New Yorker of Italian extraction who scrapes a living from working part-time jobs in a bookshop and a florist’s. One of those jobs is folding, as his bookseller friend, Murray (Woody Allen) is obliged to close the store.

Matters take a fanciful turn when Murray goes to see his chiropractor, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), and she confesses her fantasy of taking part in a threesome with a girlfriend (Sofia Vergara), and a willing male. Ever the opportunist, Murray sees a new career opening up for Fioravante. After much cajaoling, Fioravante goes to see Dr. Parker, as a trial run. It proves to be a success and soon Murray is arranging one assignation after another.

Business is booming until Murray tries to introduce a little spark into the life of Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a young widow from the most orthodox branch of Brooklyn’s Jewish community. She is charmed but not seduced by Fioravante, who returns those feelings. However, their appointments have been observed by Dovi (Liev Schreiber), the local Jewish policeman – complete with yamulke and ringlets – who has an unrequited crush on Avigal.

Dovi can see that Murray is the root of the problem. He makes an unorthodox arrest and hauls him in front of a council of Rabbis, who rain down curses and imprecations on this erring son of the synogogue.

I wont continue with the story, but you get the general idea. The ethnic comedy is further complicated by the fact that Murray lives with a black lady named Othella (Tonya Pinkins), and acts as stepfather to her kids.

Perhaps the most startling ingredient in this tale is the idea of Woody Allen as a bookseller turned pimp. Given the recent bad publicity he has received from his former stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow, it seems a brave move to play any role with sexual overtones, or one where he brings up another man’s kids. Some might find this sinister rather than funny.

The plausibility of the story hangs on the idea of Turturro as a man so compellingly attractive to women that he can just slip into the part of a gigolo. This might seem unlikely given some of the roles he has played in films by the Coen brothers, but he gives a persuasive display with a character that is reserved, wryly humorous and laconic. These qualities are probably more engaging to the female gender than any amount of machismo.

Dr. Parker tells him: “You’re top shelf, hard to reach.” It sounds impressive, but Fioravante’s brand of cool is largely due to his inexperience in this new profession. Rather than make mistakes, he tries to appear emotionally disengaged. He is also a deeply lonely character who has grown accustomed to his own company. That loneliness strikes a chord with his customers who feel abandoned within loveless marriages. Only in Avigal does Fioravante find a loneliness that matches his own.

Fading Gigolo is the fifth feature that Turturro has directed, and easily his most high-profile. The cast alone ensures a degree of visibility – a trick he may have learned from Allen. The danger with using his mentor as an actor in a leading role is that he tends to dominate everyone else. Fading Gigolo often comes across as a Woody Allen film at one remove.

Despite the Allenisms this is one of those slight, charming movies that will exert a disproportionate appeal on anyone who is fed up with Hollywood’s contemporary brand of humour: sex, violence, expletives and fart jokes. If this is what you want, it would be best to skip Fading Gigolo and go see The Other Woman.

Fading Gigolo
Written & directed by John Turturro
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, Tonya Pinkins
USA, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10 May, 2014.