‘Fading Gigolo’ can’t balance comedy and drama

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Fading Gigolo is actor John Turturro’s fifth film, which came as a bit of a surprise to this reviewer, as I missed the bus on “Romance & Cigarettes” (a musical), “Passione” (a documentary), and “Illuminata” (a period comedy). And “Mac,” his first film from 1992, is so dim in my memory that I might not have seen it at all. Regardless, “Fading Gigolo” is two things: a love letter to a New York City that is fast disappearing, a world of bodegas and small shops and affordable brownstones. It’s also a similar mash note to his co-star Woody Allen, whose film romanticized exactly that world.

The set-up also reminds us of mid-’90s Allen: He plays Murray, an old friend of Mr. Turturro’s Fioravente (such a name!), and when both find themselves at the end of employment and needing some cash, Murray half-jokingly suggests that his friend, an eternal bachelor, turn to the oldest profession in the book. Murray will be his pimp, and like an agent, take 10 percent. (This is much better than the 50-50 between artist and gallery owner, he points out.)

Being a comedy and a complete fantasy, Fioravente–calling himself Virgil–finds himself servicing several attractive women. I guess if you are writing and directing and starring, you get to call the shots, which leads us to Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara, both who employ him separately but pool their cash for a menage a trois. Murray, calling himself Dan Bongo, also sets his friend up with Avigal, an orthodox Jewish widow, played very well by Vanessa Paradis. This is trickier. And orthodox wife never leaves her house, and never shows her hair. And as we find out, she’s never been touched since her husband died. Being sensitive, Virgil delicately guides her back to healing and out of the shadow of grief.

Meanwhile, Avigal and Murray are being tailed by a shomrim, played by Liev Schreiber. Shomrim act as a sort of orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch within their communities, but we also suspect that he’s in love with Avigal and jealous.

The film feels like two stories mashed together, one light and wacky (which is how the trailers have it) and one serious, which is how Mr. Turturro tells the Avigal-Virgil scenes. But instead of bouncing ideas back and forth (like Mr. Allen did in Crimes and Misdemeanors), they separate like oil and water. And Mr. Turturro’s Virgil is caught in the middle: Woody Allen’s Murray gets all the funny one-liners, but Virgil is not so much a straight man in these scenes as he is just out of place. Directing himself, Mr. Turturro never makes his character come alive. We don’t know why he opts to become a prostitute in the first place, if he likes it, and how it changes him. Instead he falls in love with Avigal, even though their time together is more chaste than a ’50s sitcom couple.

There are some treats along the way: Marco Pontecorvo shoots New York as a glowing and radiant beauty, all greens and amber. The mid-60’s romantic jazz of Gene Ammons forms the majority of the soundtrack. And the melting pot of characters, including Murray’s extended family that includes several cute African-American kids, at least tries to truly represent the colorful city.

“Fading Gigolo” in the end isn’t really about male prostitution. It could have been rewritten quite easily to be about a widow and her massage therapist, and taught us a little bit about the problems of being alone and female in a very male-dominated orthodox religion. (These are the most fascinating bits in the film.)

Or, on the other hand, it could easily have been a comedy about a 70-year-old pimp and his his 50-year-old “ho” (as Virgil likes to call himself). Instead, it’s both these things and neither at the same time.

FADING GIGOLO
** out of *****
Starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis and Liev Schreiber
Rated R for some sexual content, language and brief nudity
Runtime 90 mins.

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