Gigolo meets Hasidic widow. Oddity ensues in John Turturro’s new movie.

June 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 12, 2014

Against all odds, Fading Gigolo is an oddly a strangely charming feature starring, written and directed by John Turturro.

The film hinges on three relationships. One involves Turturro’s character, a lonesome jack-of-all-trades with the unlikely name Fioravante, and his longtime friend and mentor, Murray (Woody Allen). Murray is closing down the New York City rare bookstore that was started by his grandfather and has been in the family ever since, a transition that leaves “Mo” at loose ends. A joking exchange with his rich, glamorous and randy dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), who longs for a ménage à trois, prompts Murray to persuade his buddy Fioravante to become a prostitute.

The sophisticated but taciturn Fioravante is a reluctant gigolo; still, women love his quiet confidence, dark looks and trim body. Mo proves to be an enthusiastic pimp. Within moments, thanks to the power of montage, he’s recruited a variety of clients, and the boys are soon rolling in money.

One of the clients is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), an Orthodox Jewish widow whom Murray meets while she combs through the lice-infested hair of his stepkids. Although her community’s strict customs forbid a man from riding in the back seat of an automobile with her, and bar women from displaying their real hair in public, Avigal travels to Fioravante’s apartment for a massage. The tightly wound single mother sheds tears when Fioravante’s bare hands gently touch her skin.

Avigal and Fioravante make for an unlikely pair, but the Italian-American Turturro and French Paradis forge a tender emotional bond that seems convincing. The characters understand that their relationship faces significant obstacles, and they’re only willing to go so far to pursue it.

One of the barriers they face is an overenthusiastic Hasidic neighborhood watchman named Dovi (Live Live Schreiber*), who’s been smitten with Avigal since childhood — this theirs being the third key relationship in Fading Gigolo. Dovi is suspicious of Murray’s repeat visits to Avigal’s apartment, and aware, as seemingly everyone in the neighborhood is, that he has taken her out of the area in a taxi. After Avigal spurns his clumsy pass, Dovi tails her repeatedly, trying to learn just what mischief is afoot. His efforts are ham-handed at some times, menacing at others.

There are a few other people on the sidelines of this circus: Parker and her man-eating younger girlfriend, Selima (Sofía Vergara); Othella (Tonya Pinkins), who is Mo’s wife or lover — I don’t think it was ever made clear; Avigal’s and Othella’s children; and Sol (Bob Balaban), Mo’s friend and lawyer, who plays a crucial role when Dovi takes his interference to a new level.

Frankly, none of this should work. That it does is a testament to the strange chemistry of the lead relationships — primarily Turturro and Paradis, but also the Turturro–Allen and Paradis–Schreiber pairings.

That the movie doesn’t work better is the fault of Turturro, who seems not to have been entirely sure what kind of film he wanted to make. (It sometimes has the air of a vanity project, given the female characters’ propensity for raving over the somewhat unlovely Fioravante’s manliness and raw sexual appeal.) Avigal is a fish out of water in Fioravante and Murray’s secular world, which the film plays out to dramatic effect. But for nearly every moment Murray is on-screen, Fading Gigolo is a comedy. When Mo is taken to a synagogue, his comic reaction — “It’s not a holiday!” — seems to belong in a different movie. He’s the alien in this situation, but it’s not apparent that Turturro was aware of the parallels between this situation and Avigal’s excursions out of the community.

Allen, in a rare acting performance for another director, generally sticks to his familiar comic shtick. The routine comes across as tired and clichéd at times, but there are moments when a spark of comic genius shines through. (At one point, Avigal says lice won’t feed on adults because their blood is too acidic. “Too Hasidic?” Murray disbelievingly responds.)

But for many people, it will forevermore be impossible to view Allen and his work without recalling the allegations that he sexually assaulted his (in effect) stepdaughter — an accusation that was made decades ago but that gained renewed attention earlier this year when the now-grown woman publicly described the episode and its lasting effects on her life. While Allen has never been convicted of a crime, there’s ample evidence that his conduct was questionable at best. In hindsight, it’s easy to interpret many of his movies as craven self-defenses mounted by a man with a guilty conscience, an enormous ego and a huge sense of entitlement.

As I so often do, I prefer to split the difference: Scorn the man, but acknowledge and respect his work. Still, some people might no longer be able to stomach the sight of Allen, and I understand that; obviously, this isn’t the movie for them.

For others, Fading Gigolo will work as a curiosity. Turturro’s portrayal of a multiethnic New York City doesn’t impart any deep wisdom about life, but it does manage to entertain and even arouse some empathy for its characters. If the filmmaker’s next movie is more focused, it could make for quite a formidable outing.

Error fixed on Aug. 21, 2015, at the same time as I made a few minor textual adjustments to the review. But thanks, autocorrect, for creating Live Schreiber!

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