‘Fading Gigolo’ poses a proposition with problematic portrayals

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It can be hard to watch “Fading Gigolo” without forgetting it’s directed by John Turturro and not, as it sometimes seems, by co-star Woody Allen. Apart from Allen’s comically cynical role, the film is tinted by an Allen-esque existentialism. In fact, the plot is initiated by a newfound lack of occupation for the two main characters.

Rather than giving the viewer time to settle in, Turturro gets down to business in the first scene. Enter Murray (Allen), a weatherworn bookstore owner whose shop is on the brink of bankruptcy after generations under his family’s management. Luckily, Murray has some cards up his sleeve — namely, a proposition from his dermatologist (Sharon Stone), who is in search of a man to join her extramarital girlfriend in a menage a trois and offers the incentive of financial compensation.

Naturally, Murray turns to his shopkeeper Fioravante (Turturro), who is cash-strapped enough to consent. The attitudes assumed by the partners in this business arrangement color their moods for the duration. As Murray reaches out to new clientele and turns himself into Brooklyn’s most fidgety and stammering pimp, his new persona, “Bongo,” comes to define him as something of a silver-tongued finagler. In contrast, Fioravante (or “Virgil”) gets sulkier due to the guilt caused by exploiting vulnerable women.

The film’s performances are consistently enjoyable. Regardless, many of the characters feel less essential as standalone characters than as contributions to round out a one-dimensional story. Take Dovi, a Hasidic neighborhood officer played by Liev Schreiber. Dovi is introduced in an awkwardly gradual way, eventually emerging as a major player when his action is needed for a climactic arc. The same can be said of Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), whose late entry into the film rushes her development as a love interest, almost making it feel as if it were phoned in as an afterthought.

This is among the greatest flaws in “Gigolo.” As the writer and director, Turturro executes many scenes, characters and quips of dialogue wonderfully when each is considered alone. In the context of the film though, they’re often out of place, as if he drafted them up for several nondescript film projects before sticking them together to make one. As likeable as the individual elements may be, Turturro could have combined them here less disjointedly.

However, the biggest issue is definitely the casting. That’s not to say the acting is poor; Turturro, for instance, plays an aloof man well for an actor with such a zany character history. What’s off about his starring role, however, is the knowledge that he wrote the film — particularly because he gives his co-stars such gag-inducing lines as “You’re top-shelf, hard to reach, that’s what makes you so good,” directed at his character no less. While Fioravante has sex with women played by actresses like Sofia Vergara, it’s easy to see these acts as being more masturbatory for Turturro than anything else.

Self-affirmation aside, Allen’s role is problematic too. His character is hard to hate because of the wittiness he oozes, as usual. Here, the problem lies in Allen’s personal history. Specifically, it’s far too easy to recall allegations of sexual abuse at his hands because of Murray’s path down a career with a stigma of sexual coercion. Evidence in either direction of this scandal might be inconclusive, but the difficulty of disentangling Allen from his character makes his portrayal of a pimp seem poorly chosen.

“Fading Gigolo” is messy but not a complete mess. Unfortunately, lots of interesting threads stick out that the plot never fully follows. While newcomers may be mostly disappointed, fans of Allen and Turturro can take solace in their enduring screen presence — and in knowing that Allen had nothing to do with the direction.

 

Contact Erik Weiner at [email protected].