Although he’s already succeeded in a long and varied acting career it may be Fading Gigolo, John Turturro’s fifth feature, which boosts his name to household status as a director.
This may in part be thanks to the presence of Woody Allen, whose characteristically neurotic turn as Murray (a character surely written for him) is really the lynchpin of the film. After being forced to close his struggling bookstore, Murray offers to pimp out his younger friend Fioravante (Turturro) as a solution to mutual financial difficulty, first targeting his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) after she confides her desire for a ‘menage à trois’.
What could have been simply a comedic romp continually strives to be more in Turturro’s disjunctive screenplay. From the start Fioravante faces moral ambivalence over his decision to accept Murray’s offer and although the film dabbles with this theme it refuses to acknowledge its own problematic moral status. Despite the pleasing humour which stems from the film’s premise, Murray’s seeming vicarious joy in Fioravante’s exploits cannot help but recall the real-life allegations aimed at Allen, especially in the film’s conclusion which sets up a young French woman as a potential future client.
Fading Gigolo’s tentative gesturing towards morality may not go far, yet it attempts a further layer of nuanced drama as Murray sets up his friend Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a widowed Orthodox Jew, with Fioravante. In this apparent sub-plot which actually hijacks much of the movie Murray’s intentions are fairly honourable; he has Fioravante act as a platonic companion, merely providing balm for Avigal’s loneliness. However, this development of Fioravante’s role as a simple prostitute is not explained up front, resulting in an uncomfortable sequence in which the viewer may believe Avigal is to be offered a highly inappropriate sexual proposition she is far from seeking.
Although Fioravante ultimately falls for Avigal and must suffer the pain of unrequited love it is the hoodwinked woman more likely to retain viewers’ empathy. Murray’s deception in first taking her to Fioravante’s home and the breaking of Orthodox law which follows is presented as a positive act which frees Avigal from an entrapping way of life, though it can equally by seen as a coercive exploitation of a vulnerable woman.
The culture clash manifest in Avigal and Fioravante’s relationship is earlier set up in an unconvincing dispute between an anti-Semitic New Yorker and an Orthodox Jew whose vehicles collide in an obvious visualisation of contradictory ideals. In this clumsy scene the temper of the stereotypical anti-Semite escalates at a rate hardly credible, yet the set piece also serves to introduce a more integral and complex character, Jewish community warden Dovi (an intense Liev Schreiber) whose love for Avigal causes him to come over all detective, adding another genre to the over-laden mix.
Although Fading Gigolo’s lack of balance shows Turturro has a way to go performances are impressive, excepting Allen’s which is nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere (Manhattan, Annie Hall, To Rome with Love…the list goes on). Sharon Stone is both fun and emotive as the lonely ignored wife who first seeks Fioravante’s services, while Sofia Vergara proves she deserves a career after Modern Family (look out for her in Jon Favreau’s upcoming Chef). Although his screenwriting on this outing may leave something to be desired Turturro’s performance as Fioravante almost manages to convince that this character is more than a 2D puppet being manipulated by Murray. In striving to make an intelligent comedy Turturro may have caught himself out; there are just too many holes.