Fading Gigolo has so much sweetness and amiable comic spirit that it’s almost possible to overlook how ludicrous it is. Here we have a movie that gets its forward momentum from a scenario so silly that it seems destined to be a farce—and then its maker goes in a warmer, more emotional direction that demands a certain amount of realism the film never established in the first place. Fading Gigolo is an odd duck and certainly not an unpleasant experience, but its pleasures are derived from a setup that’s too hard to buy, dooming this lark almost from the start.
The latest film from writer-director-star John Turturro (Romance & Cigarettes), the New York-set Fading Gigolo concerns the friendship of Fioravante (Turturro) and Murray (Woody Allen), who approaches him with an odd proposition. Murray’s dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), has mentioned to him that she and her gal friend Selima (Sofia Vergara) are looking for someone to have a threesome with. The doctor will pay for the man’s services, and Murray decides that Fioravante (who works part-time at a flower shop) needs the money and is attractive enough for Dr. Parker and her friend. (Of course, Murray, whose bookstore recently closed, will get a cut as Fioravante’s pimp.)
Fioravante is understandably wary—he’s never done anything like this before—but he decides to go ahead with it, meeting Dr. Parker at her home and successfully seducing her. Soon, word spreads that Fioravante is a superb lover, and he begins attracting more clients, including a recently widowed mother (Vanessa Paradis) who was married to a Chasidic rabbi and is trying to put her life back together.
Fading Gigolo’s central story—regular guy becomes prostitute—feels like the sort of gently outrageous plot Allen would have crafted for one of his early comedies or his 1960s New Yorker short stories. The potential slapstick silliness is only amplified by the fact that Allen is Turturro’s costar, hemming and hawing his one-liners with his usual awkward charm.
Allen had nothing to do with the screenplay, but nonetheless it’s understandable that some viewers will see him on screen and, factoring in the movie’s playful/goofy tone, assume it’s his film anyway. But Turturro is actually after a more bittersweet, observational sort of romantic comedy-drama than Allen himself has explored in recent times. The first signs of Turturro’s ambitions are apparent when Fioravante meets Dr. Parker and, instead of letting the encounter devolve into comic shenanigans, becomes a sophisticated, grownup moment of connection between the two, Fioravante perhaps surprising himself with his ability to play this Don Juan doppelgänger. Fading Gigolo presents its premise in broad comedic terms, but that’s really a feint, Turturro less interested in hilarity than in examining how middle-aged people negotiate the possibility of new love when they’ve been burned before.
The movie is strongest after Fioravante meets Avigal, the widow whose life in a strict religious community has kept her from experiencing much of life. Lonely and grieving, she’s not looking for sex as much as she’s craving companionship—in Fioravante, she’s met an ideal partner since, after all, he’s not really a prostitute. Turturro and Paradis have a sympathetic rapport that doesn’t throw off large sparks but, rather, a warm, steady glow appropriate to the characters’ muted dreams.
Unfortunately, that glow is threatened by Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a member of the local Orthodox community police who has suspicions that Fioravante may be engaged in illegal activities. (Also, Dovi has been hopelessly smitten with Avigal since they were kids and doesn’t take kindly to Fioravante courting her.) Dovi’s nosing into Fioravante and Murray’s affairs turns Fading Gigolo into a bumbling caper comedy, clogging the story with unnecessary busyness that has little to do with what Turturro is clearly more interested in exploring.
But even before then, Fading Gigolo can never quite shake the fact that it’s built on an absurd notion. It’s not that Fioravante couldn’t attract women as beautiful as Dr. Parker and Selima, but the film’s matter-of-factness about Fioravante and Murray’s prostitution ring, as modest as it is, never seems that plausible. It’s a funny idea with any mooring in reality: Turturro doesn’t think too deeply about the effects it would have on Fioravante, and the ultimate consequences of his actions aren’t particularly surprising. (He decides he wants love, not meaningless sex.)
Still, Turturro has accented his confection with plenty of enjoyable sprinkles. Allen has largely stopped acting in his own movies—which was a good idea—but in a supporting role in Fading Gigolo, he’s amusing company, essentially playing another variation of his trademark angst-ridden, wisecracking nebbish. Turturro is a quietly romantic figure, and Paradis doesn’t overdo her character’s shyness and sense of propriety. She’s also the only female character here with much dimension: Fioravante’s clients look great in lingerie but don’t have much to say. Fading Gigolo falls to pieces when you think about it afterward—it’s too minor, too goofy, too uneven—but it’s almost diverting enough in the moment to keep you engaged. Almost.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: John Turturro
Writer: John Turturro
Starring: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara
Release Date: Apr. 18, 2014