(This film review of “Fading Gigolo” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on May 8, 2014 in a shortened form.)
Written and directed by John Turturro
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Liev Schrieber, Sofia Vergara and Vanessa Paradis
John Turturro has established himself as one of the strongest character movie actors of his generation, usually playing Italian or Jewish roles with such directors as the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. (Jewish blogger Nate Bloom claims that Turturro holds the record for the most Jewish screen roles by a non-Jewish actor.) In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro attempts the “triple act” – directing, writing and starring. Unfortunately, the results are mixed at best, and this film will be a “must see” only for anyone who feel that they “must” see all Woody Allen films.
Turturro sets “Fading Gigolo” in current day New York City, and his character Fioravante is an Italian-American part-time florist whose close friend Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) has recently closed his antiquarian bookshop (“M. Schwartz & Son”). Through odd circumstances, Murray’s dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone – okay, let’s accept that bit of miscasting) asks Murray if he knows any gigolo for her, and Murray convinces his friend Fioravante to play the role.
The premise is totally preposterous. At age 57, Turturro still looks good with his strong ethnic features, but with his role as a gigolo, the title says it all: yes, he’s fading. And even more so that Sharon Stone – one of the most notable screen sirens of the past two decades – would need to seek someone like him out. At age 56, she’s still beautiful, still stunning and has a screen presence that puts everyone else in her scenes in the background. Director Turturro can’t resist showing her in her undergarments and stretching her long lithe legs, a direct visual reference to her famous erotic crossing legs scene in “Basic Instinct” (1992).
There are other strong cast members: Sofia Vergara (the South American actress best known for “Modern Family”) plays a friend of Stone’s. But the real “find” of the film is French singer Vanessa Paradis, who gives a well-controlled performance as Avigal, a Chasidic widow with six children. Incongruously, Murray attempts to set her up with Fioravante, passing him off as a “healer” (really?), to the great dismay of Dovi (a heavily underwritten role for Liev Schrieber), a Chasidic community guard (“Shomrim Williamsburg Division”) who is secretly in love with her.
The introduction of the Chasidic subtheme is odd and very much “outside in”. At one point, Woody Allen’s character is unwillingly brought before a rabbinic court and is represented by his Jewish lawyer (the ubiquitous Bob Balaban), but Turturro can’t decide which tone to take: is it a Mel Brooks-style satire or – briefly veering towards a reality check – widow Avigal’s crisis of conscience? But this is no “Fill the Void” (last year’s Israeli film), just an incoherent ramble.
Opening with Woody Allen’s voice, “Fading Gigolo” looks, feels and sounds like a minor Woody Allen movie, complete with Woody Allen music (jazz heavily flavoured with Italian), and using Allen’s favoured colour palette of beiges, yellows and browns. At least Allen acts his age (he’s a spry 78), and gives some of the film’s best comic lines. Allen has starred in a small number of films that he has not written or directed, notably “The Front” with Zero Mostel (1976) and “Scenes From a Mall” with Bette Midler (1991).
While those two films had faults, at least both of them had strong and consistent themes. In “Fading Gigolo”, Turturro can’t decide if he wants a broad comedy, a drama or a “bromance” (the Murray- Fioravante friendship is the heart of the film, well sort of). The film never recovers from its badly conceived premise, and when the actors are given some real emotions to express in the final third act, it’s too late to save our interest.
(Fun fact: Sharon Stone’s first movie role was as an extra on a train in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, released in 1980.)