An uneven, ultimately enjoyable take on a classic subgenre.
After an evocative opening credit sequence featuring warm, grainy 8mm footage of old buildings in New York City that harkens back to the ’70s “director’s era”, Fading Gigolo locks its gaze on a charming book shop. Murray (Woody Allen), the owner of the soon-to-be-closing shop, suggests (in a fidgety, roundabout way that’s classic Allen) to his friend and employee Fioravante (John Turturro), that they enter a pimp-prostitute partnership to make some much-needed dough, Fioravante is audibly trepidatious, but barely flinches at the preposterous offer. He barely flinches at anything really, as is demonstrated in the rest of the film: his default reaction to any situation is a melancholy, almost expressionless stare.
This sequence is a good indicator of things to come. The well-written, interesting characters populating the film (written and directd by Turturro) seem to flock to Fioravante, with his low-key, knowing, guru-like aura. The problem is, he’s the most uninteresting character of the bunch, making the film feel a bit lopsided. Still, it’s an ultimately worthwhile experience. (Woody Allen is John Turturro’s pimp. That’s a priceless setup no matter which way you slice it.)
The film is an earnest, tender take on the world’s oldest profession, steering clear of many tropes of the subgenre and focusing more on the healing properties of the human touch. Fioravante’s new career as a high-end gigolo gets off to a great start, to his surprise. His clients (Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone among them) gravitate to him because he treats them with respect and a gentle touch, awakening in them something that undeniably feels like love. He’s a natural, and business is booming, with Murray handing out business cards at local hangouts.
When Murray sends an extremely orthodox widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) Fioravante’s way, however, things get more complicated, as he finds himself becoming emotionally attached to the fragile, meek mother of six. Their sessions consist of sensual therapeutic massages that unlock suppressed emotions in both of them. It’s a deeply moving, wordless exchange between the two, beautifully directed and shot by Turturro and DP Marco Pontecorvo. Paradis is a showstopper, conveying tidal waves of emotion with her tiny, porcelain face. Every quiver and lip-bite is captured in extreme close-up, underlining the sensuous nature of the experience.
Noticing a marked improvement in Avigal’s typically sullen complexion is the lovelorn Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a local law-enforcement officer for the Orthodox community who’s been in love with her since they were kids. “I’ve never seen her smile…not like this.” Suspicious, he investigates to discover her regular appointments with Fioravante at his apartment. Dovi utilizes every resource available to him (including Secret Service-like Orthodox agents, which is hilarious) to muck up Murray and Fioravante’s business.
Turturro plays Fioravante in such an understated fashion that he comes across as more detached than quietly perceptive. His ultra-low enthusiasm is too disengaging, to the point where, when he’s talking to the unbelievably funny Murray, he virtually fades into the background (pardon the pun). Yes, the at-arms-length nature of the character is by design, but it feels as though Turturro undershot it.
Allen is the crowning jewel of the film, putting on his best performance on film in years. He’s not doing anything out of the ordinary here–he convulses awkwardly when he doesn’t know what to say, his voice goes up and down like a yo-yo as he stammers, he overthinks everything he says–but the difference here is that he embraces the role Turturro’s writing wholeheartedly, aggressively finding ways to make scenes funnier. He even gets to do some physical comedy: When Dovi’s Hasidic SWAT team apprehends Murray and stuffs him into a car to take him in for questioning, he unexpectedly pops out of the opposite door in a feeble attempt to elude his captors, an attempt thwarted quickly. Precious moments like these are vital.
The plot is ridiculous, but the absurdity of it a.l is easily forgiven thanks to Turturro’s disciplined skills as a filmmaker. Many scenes shine, all of them involving either Allen or Paradis. What makes Fading Gigolo unique is its sensitivity toward the female perspective, representing hooking in a positive light as an emotionally therapeutic practice. There’s too much distance between us and Fioravante, however, for the film to go down as a seminal work.