In an early moment of Fading Gigolo, Sofia Vergara greets John Turturro like Mrs. Robinson might, in a shot from within the triangle of her stiletto-tipped legs. “Do you have any idea what goes on inside a woman’s head?” Vergara coyly asks Turturro, approaching with a smile as wide as her chest.
Turturro—the film’s lead actor, writer and director—admits that he does not. And for the first time in the film, I believed him.
Fading Gigolo, opening May 23, is a patchwork of stories, cultures and caricatures revolving around Turturro’s character, Fioravante, a mild-mannered florist with an unconventional, rugged handsomeness—a compliment uttered by virtually every major character in the film, each time awkwardly reminding us that Turturro wrote this role for himself.
Fioravante doesn’t do much. Instead, things happen around him. For example, his close friend—Murray, played by Woody Allen, finally banking on his wizened charm—ropes him into playing gigolo for his needlessly attractive dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone).
Parker, and her equally gorgeous friend Selima (Vergara), decide they want to try a threesome. For some reason, Parker agrees to pay Murray $1,000 for a man to complete the ménage. In what universe two women who look and act like Stone and Vergara would ever need to pay for sex is beyond me—suffice it to say this is the same universe in which someone who looks and acts like Allen becomes a barometer of trustworthy, disease-free gigolos.
Regardless, Murray proves pretty adept at reeling in customers, including a surprising catch—Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a delicate chassidic widow deep in Williamsburg’s Satmar dynasty.
Here the film gains some traction. Avigal’s got kind eyes and charmingly imperfect teeth, and shares some lovely quiet moments with Fioravante. The two have enough chemistry to make them pause and wonder if there’s also a future down the road.
But for a film that focuses so heavily on religious Judaism and womanhood, it’s annoyingly evident that Turturro is neither. His reading of what women want is, I guess, purposely vain, and meant to set up Parker and Selima as idealized willing sex-dolls who deliberately contrast the chaste and religiously sheltered Avigal.
But the ploy is obvious and ineffective. Stone and Vergara quickly disappear as Avigal learns to love herself—though only with the help of this heroic Italian outsider who sees her for who she is, rather than for her piousness, which is all that the beefy, streetwise and intensely serious head of the Williamsburg Shomrim, Dovi (Liev Schreiber), wants her for.
Dovi’s extreme NIMBYism makes for some honestly great comedy, culminating in dragging Murray into a confrontation with a roomful of black hats and judging eyes, in which his only ally is a surprise guest lawyer with a Mets cap for a kippah.
The movie’s at its most memorable when it’s disguised as a Woody Allen flick, which makes sense. Turturro wrote the script under Allen’s watchful eye, tossing ideas Allen rejected and keeping ones he liked—and, surprise, Allen liked the Jew bits—all over the course of several months, while Turturro was directing a series of Broadway plays written by, second surprise, Allen.
“You know, I was interested in choosing some religion, because I wanted to have a big obstacle in it,” Turturro said in an interview with film website Coming Soon.
“I do think religions… serve communities sometimes well, but also, there’s all these rules that are made, whether it’s Catholicism, Muslim, chassidic Jew, that men make for women… The fear that men have of women being uncovered. It’s still a big part of the world.”
That a man plays hero in the story doesn’t help, but whatever. The film has its charms.
One of its best moments comes from Allen bringing together Avigal’s horde of payes-twirled kids with his own inner-city Afro hipsters for a game of softball.
The Jews don’t really get it; they’ve never played before. “Blacks against whites,” one of the Jews bizarrely suggests, bewildering the black kids into laughter. “No, no,” Allen recovers, pulling him aside. “We’re not doing that.”
If only his good judgment extended beyond that single scene.