Deuce Bigalow for the NPR crowd

John Turturro directs Woody Allen in Fading Gigolo, a tale of sex, money and religion.

Fading Gigolo

Woody Allen making a rare acting appearance, in a film directed by someone else, would probably make a bigger splash if that previous track record (Scenes From a Mall, Picking Up the Pieces) had produced anything actually worth watching.

posterIt would similarly be more exciting that John Turturro is directing a film if he hadn’t already made four barely released, indifferently received movies. Turturro and Allen are two huge talents, but they’re gathered here to do two things that they haven’t had any particular success at. Fading Gigolo is as pleasant as one would expect a light comedy starring those two might be, but also about as memorable as their previous efforts.

Murray (Allen) is forced to close his bookstore in the wake of a changing New York landscape, but thankfully he has a back-up plan: hooking up his lonely dermatologist (Sharon Stone) with his florist friend Fioravante (Turturro) for a hefty fee. Fioravante has no experience having sex for money, but he nonetheless does such a good job with Stone’s character that he soon becomes an in-demand gigolo with New York City’s wealthiest and most beautiful women. A chance encounter with a lonely, widowed Hasidic woman (Vanessa Paradis) strikes a chord with Murray and he establishes a tentative relationship between her and Turturro, much to the disarray of an amorous Hasidic policeman played by Liev Schreiber.

fading2Fading Gigolo sees itself as a light, banter-filled romantic comedy much in the mold of Allen’s work, and Turturro’s debt to his co-star is evident in the jazz-draped New York settings and eccentrics filling the margins. Yet Fioravante is a cipher of a character, a strong silent type that’s constantly referred to as manly and cultured, although he mostly speaks in wistful Italian proverbs and “uh-huhs.” There’s something that feels poisonously hubristic about a man writing and directing a movie in which he stars as a seductive ubermensch who sleeps exclusively with beautiful Hollywood actresses, but the final product paints Turturro’s character less as a superhuman stud and more like an inexplicably appealing, vaguely robotic weirdo.

The film’s early scenes with Stone (and eventually Sofia Vergara as the third wheel of the desired ménage à trois) paint Fading Gigolo as a bawdy but not particularly vulgar sex farce that you’d most likely feel comfortable watching with your parents; call it Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo for the NPR crowd. It’s when Paradis’s character Avigal becomes the film’s focal point that Fading Gigolo finally moves from fitfully amusing to interesting. Paradis is the only cast member playing an actual character that moves beyond the actor’s broad archetype (Bob Balaban pops up as Allen’s three-piece-suit-and-baseball-cap-wearing lawyer, to give you an idea) and imbues her character with a real depth of emotion and history. Her scenes with Turturro are tender and revealing and speak to a profundity that Turturro never reaches (or really grabs at) elsewhere in the film.

fading3Fading Gigolo is a breezy 90 minutes of polite sex jokes and tweed-jacketed ribaldry. It’s a film of modest intentions that modestly achieves its goals. Its characters are broad and inhabit a kind of fantasy land New York City where a guy who works two days a week at a flower shop can live alone in an East Village walk-up. It’s far from being a deeply introspective look at religion and love, but its best moments are when Turturro does just that. I guess we’ll have to settle for the scene of Allen teaching a Hasidic child how to play baseball. ■

Fading Gigolo opens tomorrow, Friday, May 23