Who would have thought that a film that looks like a Woody Allen film, sounds like a Woody Allen film and even stars Woody Allen would not be made by Woody Allen? That’s what John Turturro achieved with his vanity project, FADING GIGOLO. (To be fair, Herbert Ross directed PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM.)
Murray (Allen) runs a New York shop that sells rare books. Like many independent businesses, his has reached the end of the line and is closing down. When his dermatologist mentions to him that she would like to have a three-way with her BFF and someone else, she asks Murray if he knows anyone who would be interested. He immediately thinks of his long-time friend and former mentee, mild-mannered florist Fioravante (Turturro). Both could use the cash and so begins the adventures of “Dan Bongo” and “Virgil Howard”, pimp and whore, bringing magic to New York’s rich and lonely. Along the way, Murray meets the emotionally repressed Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a young Hasidic (Satmar, to be exact) widow from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district. Murray senses that Avigal could use a bit of sexual healing and he arranges for her to meet with Fioravante. However, no one expected the two would develop feelings for each other.
What starts out as a film about a ménage ends up being a film about a massage… and that’s a good thing. FADING GIGOLO wouldn’t have been a very believable sex comedy. After all, would women as hot as Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara really need to pay for sex, let alone have it with someone as vanilla as John Turturro? Instead, this is a film about change and connecting with others. The very tender scene where Fioravante touches Avigal for the first time plays perfectly. Of course, she is going to react the way she does. She hasn’t been touched at all in at least two years and has probably never been touched in that way before. It’s a beautiful scene.
Turturro has said in many interviews that Allen helped him craft the script over a two-year period and it shows. Many of Murray’s one-liners are classic Allen. In one scene where Murray is playing baseball with his African-American girlfriend’s street-smart kids and Jewish Avigal’s cloistered kids – a premise that is funny enough on its own – the kids want to team up based on racial lines. Murray nixes that plan saying, “This is why fascism gets a toe hold all the time.” The soundtrack of retro jazz and Latino songs also seems very Allenesque, though Turturro has said that this is music that he himself loves listening to.
It’s clear that Turturro has also learned a thing or two over the years about being behind the camera. The movie is shot on film, rather than in digital, which is the more common format these days. The images created from using film soften the actors’ faces and add warmth to the outdoor scenery. Turturro is well aware of camera angles too. In the scene where he and Selima (Vergara) meet for the first time, the camera is positioned between her incredibly fierce stilettos, pointing up at Fioravante. He looks like a gunslinger who is facing down his equally fierce opponent. Instead of guns, the two shoot it out with words and punctuation.
The film also benefits from a strong supporting performance from Liev Shreiber (in addition to both Stone and Vergara), who plays Dovi, Avigal’s neighbourhood civilian patrolman and her would-be suitor if she would only let him into her heart. Dovi knows that something unkosher is going on between Avigal, Murray and Fioravante but, because of his religious upbringing, he can’t quite figure out what it is. The scene where he and his friends kidnap Murray to take him to a religious tribunal seems right at home in an early Allen film.
FADING GIGOLO is a thoroughly enjoyable film. (Yes, I’ve read a few other reviews and I disagree with them.) If you love Woody Allen and John Turturro, you will love this film too. And, if you’re Jewish, you will be plotzing at the scenes in Brooklyn!
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 40:00.)