At first glance, "Fading Gigolo," John Turturro’s fifth directorial credit, marks one of the more peculiar entries in Woody Allen's career: Written and directed by Turturro, it's one of only a few projects in which Allen has starred without playing any other role in its production. Intentionally or not, however, "Fading Gigolo" actually functions as something of a statement on Allen's persona—onscreen and off—as it has been understood in the public eye. And the resulting conclusion, like the movie, is a decidedly mixed bag.
Unlike Allen, Turturro has never been a predictable filmmaker: With each project, he explores new possibilities, from the postmodern musical "Romance and Cigarettes" to the elaborate music history documentary "Passione." With "Fading Gigolo," Turturro seems to be riffing on the idea of a Woody Allen comedy in terms of its themes and neuroses expressed over the years, with Allen himself operating as a prop in this odd meta-commentary on the Allen oeuvre.
As Murray, a frumpy New York bookseller who decides to pimp his former employee Fioravante (Turturro) to make ends meet after closing up his shop, Allen’s in tune with his usual screen presence: Whining one-liners with a mixture of exasperation and deviousness, he’s both pitiable and abhorrent. Allen’s presence here harkens back to his proverbial earlier, funnier movies—which, for anyone who caught his feeble appearances in recent misfires “Scoop” and “From Rome With Love,” should come as something of a relief.
Yet the darker elements in play convey the edginess that blossomed with some of his later works. Rather than paying homage to one variation of a Woody Allen movie, "Fading Gigolo" salutes all of them. It comes as no surprise, then, that the movie is alternately funny and affecting, but just as often quite forgettable.
Like the weakest Allen ventures, "Fading Gigolo" frequently plays like the setup for a dry joke with a flimsy punchline: What if an old Jewish guy decided to become a pimp? The premise arrives in the opening minutes and quickly takes shape, with Murray convincing his colleague to take on the task because he has “a certain kind of sex appeal.” Murray may not riddle his talk with high-minded literary references, but he’s still a prototypical Allen schemer. When Fioravante initially balks at Murray’s plot and tells him that he needs help, Murray replies, "I go for help. Twice a week." He delivers the line like a funny quip, and yet it’s just a statement of fact. So it goes with most of "Fading Gigolo," which isn’t funny so much as “funny,” and not a Woody Allen movie so much as the rough ideas for several kinds of them: proof that Allen’s inimitable wit only works when it has something substantial driving it. A lot of the time, that’s Allen himself: Just as the director famously gives his actors room to play—which explains how, for instance, Cate Blanchette practically hijacks "Blue Jasmine"—so too does Turturro owe much to Allen doing his jittery thing.
But the director deserves some credit as well. In its early scenes, “Fading Gigolo” explores some amusing possibilities as Fioravante takes on the world’s oldest profession, particularly when he romances a passionate dermatologist (Sharon Stone) who becomes smitten with him and tries to lure him into a threesome. Then it shifts from the goofier arena of an Allen comedy to his spottier dramatic realm: Soon after the clients start rolling in, Turturro’s story takes bizarre turn as Allen’s character wanders into the Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg and attempts to lure an ultra-Orthodox widow (Vanessa Paradis) to take advantage of his services. His initial pitch to her registers as creepy on a number of levels, not the least of which stems from the recent scrutiny of Allen’s troubled family life.
Viewed outside of that context, however, it’s a near-subversive moment that briefly takes "Fading Gigolo" into the bold domain of extreme black comedy, before it retreats to blander, farcical turf. The messiness inadvertently replicates the uneven qualities of Allen’s filmography. Turturro populates his tale with a lot of random ingredients, from Murray’s African American household to the thin Jewish caricatures who eventually catch wind of his business. One of these, a neighborhood patrolman played by Liev Schreiber with all the investment of a "Saturday Night Life" sketch, harbors a crush on Fioravante’s latest client and eventually takes action. Rather than creating an instance of reality invading on the ridiculous scenario, however, Turturro plays the development straight. The ensuing climax, in which Allen must face down a scowling courtroom filled with bearded rabbis, has the elements of a gag that never fully comes together. It’s the third act in a weaker Allen movie, when the zany concept struggles to maintain momentum at feature length, but keeps staggering ahead anyway.
Still, Turturro attempts to give the impression of a smart, canny movie. "Fading Gigolo" looks great, uses its New York locations well, and owes much to its vibrant, jazzy soundtrack. The gentle romance that Fioravante eventually cultivates with his Jewish client offers a few genuine moments. But as a whole, "Fading Gigolo" strives to fuse intelligence and with the shrug of a story that Turturro offers up.
"Think of it as a performance," Murray tells Fioravante about his new profession, but he may as well be talking about Turturro’s attempt at making his own version of a Woody Allen movie. Instead, he makes his own version of every Woody Allen movie, laying bare the nature of various formulas Allen has repeated ad infinitum, sometimes nailing it and other times barely even showing signs of effort. Allen has accrued the luxury of making movies on autopilot, only occasionally surprising us with another well-acted, insightful achievement. Presumably by accident, "Fading Gigolo" echoes that spotty record.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Millennium Entertainment releases "Fading Gigolo" in New York and Los Angeles this Friday ahead of a nationwide expansion. Interest in Allen and Turturro may help it gain some healthy word of mouth, but with Allen’s reputation currently in question and the offbeat premise not especially attention-getting on its own, it’s unlikely to maintain much traction in the coming weeks.