Perhaps at some point it will again be possible to write the name Woody Allen and go from there. But after a year marked by artistic highs and controversial lows for the filmmaker, it seems impossible. To address the elephant in the room, all you’ll find on the docket today is a look at Fading Gigolo, an amusing indie film that includes some of Allen’s finest work as an actor in years.
Written and directed not by Allen but John Turturro, Fading Gigolo is something of a tart meditation on romance and morality through the prism of the oldest profession. Artful, insightful and at times very, very funny, much of its wry humor is due to Allen, who co-stars opposite Turturro.
Gigolo deals with the Orthodox life, in a literal sense, and the unorthodox, in a more conceptual way, exploring the dynamics between love, sex and emotional need in both. It plays out in a modest Hasidic house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a tony Park Avenue high-rise, and would not have happened if Murray’s (Allen) bookstore hadn’t folded. Fioravante (Turturro), who’s worked there since he was a kid caught stealing a book, is taking a job at a local florist. It’s left them both cash-strapped.
Much of the contemplation of the gigolo trade — Is it helping lonely women or exploiting them? — emerges in casual conversation as Murray tries to convince Fioravante he is right for the gig. Soon the men are debating Fioravante’s sexual appeal, which is as funny as it is astute. The film has a good deal more to say about what women want.
Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis are the women being romanced, each searching to get beyond cultural or religious constrictions. Liev Schreiber is a hopelessly in love Hasidic policeman dealing with his own set of rules.
The wheels start turning when Murray’s beautiful, rich and married dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Stone), asks if he knows where one might procure a suitable man for a menage a trois. She’s got an inattentive husband and an adventurous friend Selima (Vergara), who is more than game. Avigal (Paradis), the widow of an esteemed Hasidic rabbi with six kids and sad eyes, factors in a bit later, but she’s a game-changer.
The movie’s fun comes in the teasing repartee between the longtime friends as they try to manage the growing demand for Fioravante’s services. It captures Allen at his most charming — rapid-fire hemming and hawing, forever brushing away concerns like lint on a jacket. Though the delivery will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen Allen in his many films, there is a surprising lightness and looseness that Turturro brings out in the actor.
The mood shifts perceptibly as the women move into frame. Fioravante says little, but he is very much there, noticing the details, responding to the emotional crosscurrents. Usually just a touch. Whether grasping Dr. Parker’s nervous hand or clipping flower stems for the exquisite arrangements he fashions, those touches say everything. His eyes — penetrating, tender — say more. Director of photography Marco Pontecorvo gives Turturro’s distinctive face plenty of lingering close-ups — far more than the women get — and the actor handles the role of sensual leading man with aplomb.
Murray’s the talker, stealing scene after scene in the process. After a lot of carefully phrased cajoling, he persuades the young widow to consider a session with a “therapeutic masseur.” Fioravante’s touch unlocks emotions she has buried for years. In return, her emotions unlock something buried in Fioravante.
The more serious things get between Fioravante and the women, the more slapstick it gets between Murray and the Orthodox community. Dovi (Schreiber), with his hopes set on marrying Avigal, has begun tracking her movements, which soon lead him to Murray. Things go downhill from there in sometimes hilarious, sometimes haphazard, ways.
The director has a good feel for the actors, bringing out interesting new shades in not just Allen. There is a fragility in Stone’s Dr. Parker that you rarely associate with her work. For Vergara, the role of sexpot is not surprising, but the softness is. A nicely nuanced departure from her brassy trophy wife in the ABC comedy hit Modern Family. The multitalented Paradis, a French singer, actress and model, making her English-language debut, shows us in small ways — her delicate deboning of a fish, for one — that Avigal is thawing.
This is the fifth film Turturro’s directed. Like Fading, most have been small character studies wedged into his very busy career in other people’s films. The actor has as least eight projects in various stages of development and works with directors as diverse as the Coen brothers and Michael Bay.
I hope he continues to make time for these personal projects. While Fading Gigolo periodically threatens to come apart at the seams, it is Turturro’s most disciplined and delightful work yet. He still has that actor’s habit of falling in love with certain scenes, unable to break away when he should. There are a few issues with pacing and plot. But nothing so serious to distract from the fun of watching a Fading Gigolo make most, if not all, the right moves.
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