Proving that striking the right tone is all it takes to transform an outlandish concept — like an antiquarian book dealer launching an escort service to compensate for lost income — into a relatively classy night at the movies, John Turturro brings sensitivity and intelligence to a subject that could have gone terribly awry in “Fading Gigolo.” Featuring a welcome performance by Woody Allen as the world’s unlikeliest procurer and a wonderfully sensual turn by Turturro as an equally surprising lover, this wryly observant dramedy recognizes (and respects) the erogenous appeal of cinema in a way that should play especially well to the distaff half of older arthouse-goers.
“Fading Gigolo” originated as an informal sketch by Turturro, who then developed the character, Fioravante, into this unexpectedly mature script with extensive feedback from Allen. Traces of silliness remain, as when Allen’s old Jewish bookseller, Murray Schwartz, adopts the name “Bongo” as his pimpin’ new street handle, but the pleasant surprise here is how seriously Turturro takes the emotional side of the concept.
In place of broad comedy, the film dares to exclude large swaths of potential audience, its cuckoo idea — defended by Allen’s hilariously pragmatic character at every turn — ending up deeply enmeshed in the Hasidic Jewish tradition, of all places, and a million miles removed from an all-quadrant misfire like “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.” The approach unfolds as a series of tender surprises, each one making the crazy concept seem that much more human.
It all starts when Murray, by way of casual conversation, mentions a recent visit to his dermatologist, a successful middle-aged woman who confided her fantasy of experiencing a menage a trois with a close female friend and a man who wasn’t her husband. In his wisdom, Murray volunteers Fioravante for the job, and though there’s some cursory back-and-forth about money and morals, most men would happily provide the service for free, considering that Dr. Parker is played by Sharon Stone, and her accomplice is no less than Sofia Vergara.
Fioravante approaches the assignment carefully, meeting Dr. Parker alone for the first time and attending to her in a way that has less to do with sex than simply paying attention to her in a way she hasn’t experienced in years — if ever. This, coupled with the many sensual tasks characters do with their hands (making bread, preparing flower arrangements, caressing the spines of old books), arouses a completely different part of the brain than pornography does, and “Fading Gigolo” makes a convincing case that what each of these women really craves is intimacy.
Just as Fioravante is getting accustomed to his new sideline, Murray proposes another client, Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the skittish widow of a recently deceased Hasidic rabbi and possibly the most repressed woman in all of Brooklyn. A lapsed Jew, Murray believes he’s looking out for Avigal’s well-being when he suggests she try a session with Fioravante — one that limits contact to a gentle oil massage on her back, plenty scandalous by the tenets of a religion whose rules are so strict, this mother of six has never been kissed.
But Murray isn’t the only one invested in Avigal’s happiness, and the whole operation threatens to collapse the instant Orthodox neighborhood-patrol officer Dovi (Liev Schreiber, heartbreakingly sincere) starts to get suspicious about what’s making her smile so much lately. In chasing this subplot, the film delves into a world seldom seen on film, as the inevitable reckoning occurs not in front of family members or the law, but with Allen delivering one of his trademark stammering rationalizations before a grim Hasidic tribunal.
How did Turturro get here? Who knows, but his sensibility seems open to anything. The script passes no judgment on Fioravante’s actions, which the character pursues with the selfless spirit of a true romantic. Meanwhile, the entire ensemble defies typecasting. Murray lives with an African-American family (his initial run-in with Avigal is instigated by a mission to have the household’s itchy kids de-loused), while Fioravante juggles satisfying his astoundingly attractive trio and maintaining a relationship with a Tunisian singer (M’Barka Ben Taleb) abroad.
To call the ingredients incongruous would be a staggering understatement, and yet, Turturro thrives on notions no producer could pitch. As such, the cosmopolitan thesp has become the poster boy for independence in film, even if too few have seen his other uphill directorial endeavors, from the immigrant micro-study “Mac” to the delirious blue-collar musical “Romance & Cigarettes.”
With its unfussy direction, generous character renderings and upbeat jazz score, this outing could easily pass for an Allen film. It certainly benefits from having Allen aboard, though only Turturro would fight to bring such a warm and disarming experiment to the screen. While vanity played no part in the project, the pic forces audiences to consider Turturro in a completely different light. As a character actor, he so often plays awkward, but here, his passion wins out.