“Do you ever just get down on your knees and thank god that you know me and have access to my dementia?” George Constanza asks when his scheme to get Jerry out of a relationship by having him claim he wants to have a menage a trois, winds up with woman actually being into the idea. It’s a hilarious scene because not only does it acknowledge one of the ultimate male fantasies, but when moments later Jerry says he can’t go through it, it also underscores that it’s a long way from fantasy to reality. There’s little of that wonderment or fear in John Turturro‘s odd, uneven and yet engaging “Fading Gigolo,” a film that starts as a sex comedy but becomes something else entirely, as ideas for what would’ve been two really good separate films are combined into one merely adequate picture.
To the film’s benefit, it doesn’t waste any time, jumping right into the premise with Murray (Woody Allen), a rare book dealer whose business is going kaput, presenting his friend and florist Fioravante (Turturro) an intriguing proposition: Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) is looking for someone to participate in a threesome along with her curvaceous, bodacious best friend Selima (Sofia Vergara), and she’s willing to pay $1,000. Murray suggested Fioravante, but of course, needs to clear it with him first. And while Fioravante is naturally, initially reluctant, the money proves too good to ignore. After an initial test session with the doctor goes very well, Fioravante and Murray are quickly launching a new business in the flesh trade, and the cash starts rolling in. So for a while, Fioravante has no problem selling himself for sex (or moral or ethic quandaries don’t seem to bother him), and the elderly Murray seemingly takes like a fish to water in drumming up clients (it’s not really explained how he does it, but for the sake of the movie, just roll with it). But of course things all change when Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) enters the picture.
A Hasidic widow, she’s connected with Fioravante through Murray for “therapy,” and it quickly becomes clear that word isn’t just a euphemism for sex. The sensitive Fioravante clearly realizes she’s a woman still in mourning and yet also longs for companionship, but hesitates to move on due to the deep pain she still feels as well as the constraints of her faith, which makes meeting men a particular challenge. If that doesn’t sound particularly hilarious, that’s because it isn’t. This section of the movie makes up most of the second half, and it’s actually a lovely and a rather unique romance that goes in some fresh and insightful directions. It’s certainly the kind of relationship troubles we don’t see in a movie often at all and had this been the focus of “Fading Gigolo,” it might have been a better movie for it.
That’s right, as much as we love Woody Allen, and as effortless as he is here, the comedic elements of ‘Gigolo’ are actually the least effective. It’s certainly not unfunny, just mildly amusing at best (though a running subplot with Murray as a neighborly uncle, or something, to a group of local black kids is completely out of place), with Allen still able to hold his own onscreen and deliver one liners, even making the most of the slightly worn and familiar zingers he throws out here. But the real heart and soul of “Fading Gigolo” is in the pairing of Fioravante and Avigal, with the former negotiating his true feelings through the slight deception he’s perpetrating on this vulnerable woman, while the latter slowly awakens to the idea of moving on and learning to accept emotional and physical partnership again.
And with the wacky amateur pimp laffer running alongside a quieter, more observant drama, the overall effect is a movie that’s tonally messy and inconsistent. It’s one where we found ourselves wanting return to Avigal (Paradis is surprisingly strong in the part), rather than the antics of Murray, who is eventually tailed by Shomrim hothead Dovi (Liev Schreiber), building to a rather wheezy chase sequence. It speaks to Turturro’s (non) interest in the sex angle that the threesome is almost completely sidelined after it’s first mentioned, only to be quickly resolved in the last act, so we can get back to what happens next with Fioravante and Avigal.
A very New York City story that feels authentic (unlike the other festival NYC tale “Begin Again“), and gorgeously shot by Marco Pontecorvo, “Fading Gigolo” is mostly an inoffensive trifle, slightly undone by its lack of focus and mishmash of genres that don’t quite come together. But it’s breezily told and acted, with some decent laughs and unlike many comedies these days, it actually cares and respects the characters and the consequences of what they go through. As we said, there are better pictures to be made out of the material but what we do get is a decent enough cinematic peck on the check. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.