I was disheartened to find that this weekend’s Wally Pfister sci-fi drama Transcendence (which I haven’t yet seen) is getting mostly bad reviews. But more so I was surprised, perusing Rotten Tomatoes, to see how many passes have been given to John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. It’s hard to bemoan critics going easy on a small-scale indie, especially one that Turturro wrote, starred in, and directed; I admired the distinct voice of his long-shelved and little-seen Romance and Cigarettes. And yet: Fading Gigolo is inexplicably and irretrievably terrible.
Say this: it does an admirable job of laying out its premise in the very first scene; no foreplay here, as a bookstore owner played by Woody Allen (!) [his first onscreen appearance since Dylan Farrow publicly accused him of abusing her as a child—Ed.] casually mentions to his buddy (Turturro) that (a) he may have to close up shop and (b) by the way, one of his doctors (Sharon Stone) has confided in him that she’s looking for a threesome candidate for herself and her friend (Sofia Vergara) and is willing to pay for that pleasure. Let’s agree to believe that characters played by Stone and Vergara, who would not likely be found wanting in this situation, must not want to place an ad. We could even maybe even pretend we’re dealing with a movie that Allen wrote and directed, where no one knows anything about computers, and allow that sure, ok, Woody Allen is going to pimp out John Turturro at these ladies’ request. That’s part of the joke, right? The movie acknowledges the shortcomings in this scheme: “I’m not a beautiful man,” Turturro protests, lightly.
Yet Fading Gigolo is so unwilling to treat its premise as a joke, at least whenever Allen is offscreen, that it becomes something weirder and more frustrating than a silly comedy about Woody Allen pimping out John Turturro to Sharon Stone: instead, it becomes a sincerely felt nothing. Throughout the movie, Turturro looks dazed and speaks with a quiet evenness, like he’s starring in a Jim Jarmusch movie or something. This is supposed to indicate, I guess, his chivalrous respect for his clients, although all the movie really shows is him treating the job with mildly awkward formality. The script itself shows a bit less chivalry in that Stone and Vergara are both cast for their sexpot reps; they’re not written as interesting characters.
In an attempt to introduce a meaningful relationship, the movie instead turns on a bizarre sequence where Turturro gives a massage to a skittish Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis). In terms of simple stuff like motivation and clarity, this scene is a mess: maybe I’m dim, but I genuinely had no idea if Turturro was now positioning himself as a masseuse in addition to prostitute; if he intended to seduce the widow and then charge her money for his ongoing services; if he considered this practice good client recruitment or just received some other signal that she would be open to being touched by a man for the first time in years; if the woman was aware that he was a male prostitute and not a masseuse; if the woman even wanted a massage, let alone sex; if the scene was based on a misunderstanding; if it was, who was misunderstanding whom; or, actually, why the hell any of this was happening.
In any event, this baffling scene happens, and this is how the movie comes to involve Liev Schreiber playing a member of the Shomrim, a group of neighborhood-watching Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg. As happens repeatedly in the film, this seems like a neat idea: I’ve never seen a movie deal with the Shomrim before. Turturro obviously finds them considerably less creepy and aggressive than I do, but it’s great that the filmmaker is of more generous spirit than I am! The movie radiates affection for both the golden-orange New York of Woody Allen movies and the diverse tapestry of actual New York. But the addition only makes the movie less coherent and less funny; there’s a long sequence in which Allen gets captured by the Shomrim and stands extralegal trial, nonsensically defended by his sort-of lawyer Bob Balaban, and it plays a lot like those rough-draft-style Allen comedies from the early aughts, only with fewer one-liners. Even the bittersweetness that is supposed to accompany Turturro’s relationship with Paradis is faintly inexplicable.
I realize I have used the words “inexplicable,” “baffling,” and several synonyms for “weird” all to describe a fairly straightforward sex comedy. I think Fading Gigolo is so confounding (see?) because it allows its most obvious themes to just sort of waft away pleasantly (and paradoxically, the fake pleasantry becomes off-putting). By casting an older Turturro, former starlet Sharon Stone, and noted septuagenarian Allen in principle roles (and calling itself Fading Gigolo), the movie kinda-sorta purports to be about aging, except no one in the movie seems particularly ill at ease with their age, not even Woody, who makes several typical quips, surprisingly few infused with his usual dread over death. Turturro’s ambitions obviously extend beyond simple sex comedy—so far, in fact, that he manages to subtract multiple jokes from a one-joke movie.