In his review of “American Gigolo,” the always-astute Roger Ebert said the feverishly stylish picture was really, at its core, a portrait of isolation. “The whole movie has a winning sadness about it,” Ebert wrote. “Take away the story’s sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness.” The emptiness haunting Julian Kay (Richard Gere) is central to the story of a sex worker who adorns himself in the sleekest ’80s couture and prides himself on knowing how to please his clients, but falls down a perilous rabbit hole where transactions can no longer save him; he needs a real connection, and Julian’s not only short on bonafide friends, but he may not even know what one looks like. Set against the superficiality of Los Angeles’ hottest clubs and richest denizens, “American Gigolo” captured not just a man going through the motions until the motions were their only meaning, but a country with the same hollow obsession with perception.
“American Gigolo,” the Showtime series, states in its flashy opening credits (set to the film’s hit theme song, “Call Me” by Blondie) that it’s “based on characters created by Paul Schrader,” the writer and director of the original film. Who those characters are, I have no idea. The new show stars Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye, and it’s not just the added “e” on the end of his surname that demarcates this so-called gigolo from Gere’s. He’s given a wholly different, “real” name in the premiere. He’s unconcerned with status and disinterested in any particular way of life. And he’s not lonely. Not one bit.
Repeating or recycling character traits isn’t a requirement in series adaptations, but so fully abandoning the ethos of the original work — without greater purpose, or any purpose at that — is a bastardization for the sake of branding. Developed by David Hollander (who wrote and directed the first two episodes, before being dismissed following a misconduct investigation), the in-name-only reboot of “American Gigolo” shows no interest in a modern reevaluation of sex work, a reappraisal of Los Angeles through a character returning to it after 15 years in prison, or even a baseline respect for women (whose dead bodies stack up with appalling regularity). It’s yet another sleazy crime story with a lead who could be anyone, so long as they’re attractive, macho, and susceptible to their darker impulses. For those who miss “Ray Donovan,” this may scratch that itch. But for those with any appreciation of Schrader’s “American Gigolo,” the series has nothing to do with it.
Justin Lubin / Showtime
Bernthal’s Julian is introduced in 2006, sitting in custody and being grilled for a murder he can’t remember. “I remember you waving a bloody knife around, that’s what I remember,” says Detective Sunday (played with an amiable doggedness by Rosie O’Donnell, in a role originated by the great Hector Elizondo). Via some of the show’s many, many flashbacks, Julian remembers waking up next to a dead, naked woman. He panics, screams, cries, and tries to flee, before the cops come crashing in — but he never actually waves a knife around. Details be damned, the point is made: He was caught with the victim, covered in her blood, and no one else was home.
Pushed to confess by Detective Sunday — a mistake she barely addresses and the show prefers to ignore — Julian gets a 25-year prison sentence and, when we cut to his life behind bars circa 2021, he seems to be making the most of it. He keeps his hair slicked back and mustache neatly combed. He stays in (phenomenal) shape by doing bedside burpees. In the kitchen, where he works, he’s the living embodiment of Cheers, knowing every inmate’s name and offering them a cordial greeting as he tongs out breakfast patties. He’s even built a reputation as a guy who can help people, and when a desperate prisoner named Drew begs Julian to persuade another convict to stop raping him, Julian offers a piece of advice: “If you just give him what he wants, he can’t take it from you.”
Soon, via more flashbacks, the insight within Julian’s proposed outlook is explained through a horrific backstory. Repeatedly raped by his next-door neighbor and sold into forced prostitution by his own mother, Julian became a sex worker by force. His pimp is a chipper lady called The Queen (Sandrine Holt), who educates young Johnny (his real name) in the ways of pleasing women. She also assigns him a best friend, Lorenzo (later played by Wayne Brady), and slides into a creepy paternal role by orchestrating Julian’s coming-of-age milestones, like learning to drive a car or give a woman an orgasm.
“American Gigolo” fills in these details quickly and with a numbing bluntness, as if it must explain that Julian was only ever paid for sex because he was abused, forced, and manipulated, lest the audience not see him as a person. (It also goes out of its way to make clear Julian never slept with male clients, because my lord, how could he?) Seeking to make him as identifiable as possible (and thus dumbing down any remaining complexities), new evidence is soon unveiled that exonerates Julian, making him a free man. He reunites with Lorenzo — who was “there with [him]” throughout Julian’s prison sentence, sending books and money on a regular basis — and pays a visit to his former flame, Michelle (Gretchen Mol).
She and Julian’s relationship is perhaps the final straw for “American Gigolo” (2022). The couple meets via a chance occurrence on the beach, and soon, they’re bumping into each other out on the town — she with her tech billionaire husband, Richard (Leland Orser), he with an older client. Nevertheless, they find time to be together; rolling around in bed, taking smoochy selfies in a photo booth, and falling into an easy, blissful love. Of course, that’s all upended by Julian’s wrongful imprisonment, but his memories of her after all these years emphasize their real connection.
Aside from taking a 180-degree turn from Schrader’s lonely, love-starved Julian, the main problem with Showtime’s version is conventionality. Pining over lost love, trying to start your life over, avoiding the mistakes of the past — these are all boilerplate character dynamics, and “American Gigolo” stretches them to their limit while ignoring its story’s unique perspectives. The series is more invested in mapping another hard-R antihero story onto a Paramount property than trying to say anything fresh or relevant about how America treats sex workers, and it uses Julian’s profession as an excuse for risqué sex scenes that convey next to nothing about the characters involved. (Said sex scenes are zero fun; even with a fit Jon Bernthal going shirtless every 20 minutes, it’s hard to make a legitimately sexy series when the longest, most focal fornication centers abuse over enthusiasm.)
Also absent from the series is a sense of visual identity. Schrader used slow, mesmerizing tracking shots to lure audiences into Julian’s vivid Los Angeles setting. The state of his clothes, his car, and the rest of his possessions shared his mindset even better than what he said. In the series, the world carries no distinction from other L.A. stories. Julian’s world is just a stock white guy’s idea of “cool.” His car is just a cool car; his apartment is a simple studio, but it’s right on the beach (an impossible splurge for anyone with Julian’s means, and it comes with an even more fantastical parking spot); his clothes only carry meaning when they indicate a choice he’s already made. This “American Gigolo” doesn’t want you to think too hard about anything.
Rather than a complex character study, “American Gigolo” has been twisted into a convoluted murder-mystery. Instead of embracing its distinctive elements, it’s more than happy to mimic its trashy cable predecessors. (“Ray Donovan” at the low end, “Goliath” perhaps at the high.) And in an age where all I.P. is being converted into something, anything, new again, the ambition-free, utterly indistinct, and borderline misogynistic “American Gigolo” still exhibits a worst-case scenario. There’s nothing winning here, but plenty to be sad about.
“American Gigolo” premieres Friday, September 9 on Showtime’s streaming service. The first episode will air on Showtime’s linear channels Sunday, September 11 at 9 p.m. ET. New episodes will be released weekly.