John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo is a sleekly professional service, offering the pleasure of a knowingly forgotten sensation: a New York City for adults.
Showing as much or more interest in making love to the Manhattan of a bygone era as to any woman, Turturro’s fifth directorial effort is a movie that savors the aroma of a Gotham that smells like mahogany and is populated by grown-ups who have no qualms about sinful behavior, but they like to do it with dark chocolate on hand, and the sound of smooth jazz playing in the background. Indeed, both of these requirements are mandated by the top client of Fioravante’s (Turturro) small business. She’s played by Sharon Stone, the resident sex symbol from a time when Turturro was surely not fading, and they both prove they still got it here in this bottle of springtime cabernet.
The biggest telltale about Fading Gigolo’s romanticisms for a land of antiquated blues and citizens who never sleep—because of high strung neuroses—is its origin point of conflict, drama, and perfect humor: Woody Allen.
Making the rare appearance in another director and writer’s film, Allen plays Murray, the owner of a hundred-year-old family bookstore that specializes in used and rare literature. Sadly, the film begins when Fioravante helps Murray close down shop for the last time, because nobody other than the film’s small circle of interest seems to read anymore. But Murray proves to be more adept for survival than many of Allen’s onscreen personas from his own hand. As the father of a large brood in need of support, Murray stumbles upon a brilliant entrepreneurial idea; he and Fioravante could make a lot of cash quickly if they get into the male prostitution bracket. It’s certainly a growth industry! Turturro’s protagonist, as with much of the film, seems very passive about the prospect, but when you’re the writer and director of the movie, it can’t be so bad, because all the clients look like Stone or an equally devious Sofia Vergara, who plays married Stone’s BFF, both of whom are looking for a man to seduce into a three-way. However, at Vergara’s insistence, it must be a real man. Somehow, I suspect they shouldn’t have to resort to paying for this vacant position.
All the witticisms and easy-going banter between Turturro and Allen, suggesting an off-screen friendship, turns the pill of what the characters (and the movie itself) are selling into a light aphrodisiac after dinner. Allen fires on all cylinders throughout the picture, recalling when asked by Stone’s Dr. Parker if he’s ever had a ménages à troi, “Yeah, in 1977 during a blackout. Nobody could see anything, but it still was very pleasant.” The classic cocktail party repartee helps overshadow that Murray is one of the filmmaker’s skeevier characters, a guy who sells pimping in the classiest five borough spots with a jester costume on.
And it is in the Brooklyn borough that Fading Gigolo finds its strongest and most surprising calling card. Despite being marketed and titled under the unlikely “get rich quick” story of Murray and Fioravante, the movie, in truth, seems most interested in stepping outside of that rosy Manhattan skyline it basks in early for an autumn-themed trip into parts of New York not often filmed. Murray himself is the father of a multi-cultural family, proudly showing a divergence in Turturro’s New York from the one ironically sold in Allen’s own cinematic postcards. But the picture’s real interest is in the “tribe” that Murray has become lost from, namely the large Hasidic Jewish section of Williamsburg.
In the part of Williamsburg where wearing hats is not meant to be a post-modern fashion statement, Murray slowly recruits Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) into his growing clientele. As the grieving widow of a husband who at most touched her once on their wedding night, Avigal is a deeply wounded creature that ultimately walks away with the whole picture. Paradis surprisingly underplays the shackles of 300 years of repression under a bound and tightened wig with only tortured eyes and a frequently dimming smile. The reason Turturro curiously insisted on his own protagonist’s passivity becomes clear when Fioravante offers a back massage and so much more to Avigal. The business transaction between the two turns into an overture of human contact with religious connotations that transcend Avigal’s suffocating community, however briefly, and its watchful gaze, which glowers with more than concern. Enter one self-appointed neighborhood copper, Dovi (Liev Schreiber), who follows her to Manhattan for meetings of a decidedly non-Hebrew persuasion.
However, the movie never crosses the line to condemn the cultural limitations of this religious tradition, even if it finds its strongest voice in a woman looking to break them. This is probably because Fading Gigolo is strangely quiet on all its subject matters. While it revels in a New York of old and older when it comes to the Hasidic subplot—culminating in a somewhat humorous and somewhat terrifying trial for Murray, the non-believer, behind communal walls higher than Jericho—above all the movie still chooses to observe and not judge or even comment on the morality of any character’s persuasion. As a narrative, Fading Gigolo might ultimately disappointment, as it is a collection of disparate moments with a messy conclusion that muddles Avigal’s humanist renewal and the smiles of Fioravante and Murray with catharsis or resolution.
Nonetheless, it is in these moments and strange characterizations that we see the movie that Turturro was content in making. It’s a long-savored drink of life and people who populate a world where there are no giant robots or talking cars. Their urban co-existence can be messy with experiences ever so fleeting, such as Fioravante and Avigal’s brief October romance. Still, it is a moment worth consummating and is blissfully ignorant of sin, whether it be of the flesh or of the celluloid. In that sense, Fioravante and Murray make for a pleasurable evening companion, indeed.