An offbeat, casual, and unexpectedly cool affair, Fading Gigolo is an affectionate rom-com with unusual pleasures. John Turturro, jumping back and forth between unexpected intimacy and a highly New York sense of humor, gives us the story of Virgil the middle-aged male gigolo, and his lothario pimp Dan Bongo.
Rather, those are Turturro and Woody Allen’s professional names for their shaky new venture. Virgil is actually Fioravante, a kind, quiet, and gifted Brooklyn florist (metaphors ahoy!). Fioravante’s casual demeanor is the very definition of unassuming. The guy has a tall, strong, awkward frame and an incredibly warm smile. Fioravante is old pals with Murray (Allen), the failed proprietor of a boutique for rare books. Murray is broke, and has a much younger wife and four (hysterical) kids.
Murray’s got an idea. What if Fioravante prostituted himself to Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) for some much-needed income? Fioravante gets to try out a ménage a trois, and Murray gets to make ends meet. From this humble, and frankly illegal beginning, Murray and Fioravante become Virgil and Bongo.
It turns out that Fioravante’s an ace at being a gigolo. He’s a contemporary Don Juan and we totally believe it. Beneath the casual exterior, a strong, patient, soft-spoken romantic.
Virgil is smooth and caring. He’s something most men are not: receptive. He sees the dermatologist’s neuroses, but doesn’t exploit them. He puts on his routine for female clients not to dupe them, but to draw on his subtle wisdom in hopes of making them a little happier. He has misgivings about his newfound line of work, but can see the pleasurable perks for all parties. But don’t worry, amidst the romance, there are some decent riffs and goofs on mature sexuality here and there.
Eventually Virgil becomes involved with a Hasidic widower, Avigal (the gorgeous Vanessa Paradis). This is where the film really shows its willingness to vacillate between tones and stories. Fioravante doesn’t want to hurt this very sensitive woman. Yet Virgil, the lover, has a job, and sees a chance to make Avigal happy. The relationship becomes the catalyst for some fine romance. This arrangement opens up a zany screwball sub-plot about Murray getting in deep trouble with Hasidic Jews. Fading Gigolo wants it both ways, and sees that it can have it.
Turturro, directing his own script that benefited from Woody Allen’s contributions, creates a gold-toned, retro film. Fading Gigolo alternates between two kinds of stories really nicely. Half the time, Turturro presents a lovely series of Autumn romances in New York, with his Fioravante loving and embracing women in rustic parks, beautiful apartments, and on the handsomely diverse streets of New York City. At other times Turturro makes Fading Gigolo a screwy comedy of misunderstanding, ego, sexuality, and insecurity. Both angles work together.
Turturro’s not looking for revelations or huge laughs. He’s more interested in thoughtful human interactions and having an amiable sense of humor. It takes a minute to make sense of his tone shifts, but the film’s all the better for it. Turturro makes interesting choices, from his snazzy photography, to his jazzy soundtrack, to Woody Allen being goofily pushed around.
Also, can we talk about Woody Allen for a second? The guy is a 78-year old mainstay who can somehow keep nailing punchlines. Take this for instance:
“Are you on drugs?”
“Apart from my Zoloft, no!”
How dumb is that joke? In fact, Allen may have used it before, but Allen can just get it to work. Whether it’s a snappy line, a nervous encounter, a witty aside, or just Woody saying funny words, the guy’s still got something. “Dan Bongo” is a name that seems funnier than it probably is because of how excited Allen is to say it.
Yes, Liev Schrieber eats up scenery as a Satmar cop. Perhaps stereotypes are an issue when Jews become sensationalized, and Turturro is the consummate Italian lover. Maybe the stakes are a little too low, like Turturro is struggling to exude effortlessness. All those misgivings aside, Fading Gigolo mostly scores.