Fading Gigolo: Toronto Review

An odd, sometimes funny, other times touching, always modest look at a strange bunch of New Yorkers.

John Turturro's film features Woody Allen in a substantial role as a very unlikely pimp; Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara also star.

An oddball, sentiment-tinged comedy about an undistinguished New Yorker who suddenly becomes a sought-after paid stud in middle age, star-director-writer John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo features enough strange narrative turns and modest laughs, not to mention a substantial role for Woody Allen as a very unlikely pimp, to provide a measure of curiosity value. It’s a small, unassuming film and not sexy despite the presence of some very beautiful women, one likely destined for limited theatrical exposure before finding a more takers in assorted home markets.

The curveballs start flying at the very beginning, as Allen’s going-out-of-business old New York bookstore owner Murray informs pal Fioravante (Turturro) that his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) is interested in a threesome and that he suggested him as a possible participant -- for a $1,000 fee. Fioravante, a modest florist with less than that in his checking account, has never done anything like this before; his initial reaction is, “You want to turn me into a ho?”

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The biggest problem with the film is that absolutely no information is provided about the central character; the graying, fiftysomething fellow looks to be in good shape but has a sad-sack, go-along-to-get-along demeanor, never says anything interesting and is given no family or sexual history, so how is the viewer to gauge what this new opportunity means to him emotionally or physically? There’s no way to engage with this guy.

Before bringing her friend into the equation, the doctor wants to sample the goods on her own. Her rave reviews suggest Fioravante has had plenty of practice in the past, and Murray is thrilled with his cut of the repeat business that results, but the impassive Casanova exhibits no reaction to his new trade whatsoever other than to show up when requested.

With this cipher at the center of things, interest flows elsewhere, first to Murray, who seems to work as something resembling a babysitter to a brood of local black kids and rants and runs on with whiney, kvetching and often funny remarks in trademark Allen style. Turturro wrote this part with Allen in mind and the lines and the settings he inhabits, mostly cramped New York apartments or the streets, do seem tailor-made to keep the comic in his comfort zone.

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An odd character who slowly circles into view is Dovi (Liev Schreiber), an officer in a local Hasidic Jewish police force that patrols the neighborhood. To an outsider, this seems a strange thing -- since when in the United States do different religions get their own law enforcement entities? -- and it’s unclear what authority they have, especially over those outside the faith. This becomes relevant later when non-Hasidics get hauled in to be ranted at by ultra-conservative rabbis at a special hearing convened to consider the behavior of the character who emerges as the most interesting and touching in the story.

A Hasidic widow with six children, Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) has lived an entirely cloistered life for two years. Dovi loves her but hasn’t a clue how to express it and becomes alarmed when he sees her in the company of Fioravante, who’s probably not even Jewish. Very slowly and modestly, Avigal opens herself to the strange but attentive man, who treats her with great gentleness, with a massage and finally with warm kissing in the park. The result is profound for both of them, for her as the beginning of a return to life after prolonged dormancy, for him as genuine emotional engagement and an obvious contrast to his purely physical sessions with the doctor, which are now set to continue with the addition of her beyond sexy friend Selima (Sofia Vergara).

Against expectations, Fioravante’s interlude with Avigal, which drives Dovi mad with jealousy, becomes quite touching due to the long distance Avigal must travel to return to the world of the living and because of Paradis’s sweet performance. A tiny thing with a doll’s face and an initially frozen timidity, she thaws palpably under the man’s ministrations, giving the film a satisfying, bittersweet core despite the fact that the male lead remains an essentially unknown quantity.

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Fading Gigolo has a very New York indie feel and most of the settings, especially the messy, tight apartments and lamented bookstore, are places Allen could have inhabited or filmed in 40 years ago. The jazz score further amplifies the throwback feel.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Production: Antidote Films
Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, M’Barka Ben Taleb, Tonya Perkins, David Margulies, Abe Altman, Sol Frieder, Max Casella, Loan Chabanol, Michael Badalucco, Aida Turturro, Allen Lewis Rickman, Bob Balaban
Director: John Turturro
Screenwriter: John Turturro
Producers: Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Bill Block, Paul Hanson
Executive producers: Sasha Shapiro, Anton Lessine, Bart Walker, Scott Ferguson
Director of photography: Marco Pontecorvo
Production designer: Lester Cohen
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Simona Paggi
Music: Abraham Laboriel, Bill Maxwell
90 minutes