Fioravante (John Turturro) decides to pimp himself out to various women as a way of making money to help his down-on-luck friend, Murray (Woody Allen). With Murray acting as his friend's 'manager', the duo quickly finds themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.
See enough movies and you get to know yourself maybe a little, perhaps a lot. That is, you develop a sense, an affection if you like, for a certain kind of story. Fading Gigolo, the fifth feature from John Turturro as director, is a likeable mess about a downcast part-time florist who takes up prostitution as a way to beat a tough economy, and at the centre of its weird, tender heart is a theme I welcome with a warm embrace. Fading Gigolo, then, is a movie about how it’s quite impossible to hide behind a job. Or to put it another way, our gigolo finds out that he’s not really on the job for the money.
There are quite a few other things about the film I like too, starting with the cast. It seems best these days to treat Woody Allen, both the actor and the man, with something approaching caution, narrowing to disdain. Still, look closely at his on-screen history and you’ll find he has always had a case to answer as an acquired taste. His acting is a matter of tics, stand-up timing, and fishtailing hands. All of that and the whine detonating one-liners seem calculated to avoid close scrutiny of an inner-life. Here is the high energy Woody Allen and that was a smart move.
Turturro wrote the script, which is episodic, big on detail, short on conventional character psychology, and yet it fairly aches with a melancholy to do with loneliness, aging and the practical necessity of needing to touch and be touched (in both senses of the word). Allen, in short, supplies the movie’s giggle. He plays Murray Schwartz, an antiquarian bookseller facing insolvency who lives with an African American family (one of the film’s many amusing narrative non-sequiturs; another is the film’s interest in skin and hair – dermatology and lice play support roles in the plot). Turturro is Murray’s pal and sometime clerk, Fioravante, the kind of guy who always needs money ‘cause he never had any in the first place. With his crampy voice, big eyes that seem to know nothing but disappointment, and general air of glum reluctance, Fioravante is the first to admit he’s no one’s idea of a ladies man.
Murray has a business proposition, a 60/40 split to be precise. He happens to know a woman seeking a ménage à trois with her bestie and reckons Fioravante is the man for the task. The clients turn out to be Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara. Fioravante emerges a hit, so to speak, with both of them, a fact that emboldens Murray, who by mid-movie has adopted ‘Bongo’ as his pimp handle. This bit is the movie’s farce subplot and Turturro has fun with wacky angles and romantic clichés. He shoots one encounter like a western stand off. He places the camera on the floor and frames Fioravante between the long legs of Vergara (reminiscent of that notorious ‘man-eater’ shot in The Graduate.) Later on in the same scene, Turturro leads Vergara in a rather nifty tango.
Still, Turturro finds time for earnestness – and the movie’s most inspired bit of casting – in the story of Avigal, a widow of a Hasidic rabbi with a large brood and a heavy heart. She’s played by French singer/actor Vanessa Paradis, and whenever she’s on screen the movie gets a jolt. That’s because we see and feel her sadness in every move she makes. Murray persuades Avigal to take on Fioravante as a masseuse; service provider and client fall into a love with no future since Avigal lives under strict social, cultural and religious rules and thus conventional courtship is impossible.
Besides, Avigal has another would-be suitor in Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a Shomrim, a neighbourhood cop. This bit of the narrative is tender and sweet but it’s not without its strange beats; Avigail shares a ‘love scene’ with Fioravante in which she shows him the best way to carve a kosher meal of fish; it’s shot up close, complete with sucking sounds.
I suspect a lot of people might not be able to stomach this kind of eccentric babble. The sexual politics – superficially at least – are borderline risible and the moral economy of the film might be understood as either naïve or rather cynical, depending on one’s own personal compass.
Lofty notions aside, Turturro’s grasp on those essential directorial issues of pace, style and tone are shaky to say the least. The film sags whenever Paradis and Allen aren’t on screen, and the auteur’s own performance is surprisingly flat at times, surprising given Turturro’s track record as an imaginative and energetic actor. At least cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo gives the film – and its principal location Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a warm chocolatey glow that infuses the whole thing with the feeling of a fractured fairytale. It’s a bit like Allen’s Manhattan fantasies, though much stranger; some of it is like Mel Brooks crossed with Kafka. I won’t soon forget the bizarre spectacle of the brilliantly funny Bob Balaban going to head to head with a stern bench of Hasidic elders.
What I like best about the film, its essential redeeming value, is its sense of community. Turturro’s character has been scorned as a blank by some critics, but that misses the point; I think he’s a kind of sleepwalker. By movie’s end, Fioravante has awoken and learnt the value of getting involved; in a neighbourhood, in friendship, in love and in himself, and he’s had to suffer a bit to get through it. In a cinema of cheap shots and quick fixes I’ll take that, corn and all.