John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo Is Inexplicably and Irretrievably Terrible

04/18/2014 1:02 PM |

fading gigolo john turturro woody allen

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.

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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.

4 Comment

  • It’s not a perfect film, but it’s quite good. Your opinions are of course valid, but I just saw the film tonight with an average audience, and we applauded at the end – there is some vagueness as you suggest, but to a reasonably attentive film goer, most of your concerns are answered, albeit subtly, in the screenplay: Murray is amplifying his dermatologist’s wishes to forward his own agenda (you missed that?) so, no, she’s not searching Craig’s List. Avigal is conflicted, but is seeking exactly what she gets, which is what she needs, from “Virgil,” who is has set up a massage table before Avigal’s arrival, and therefore has communicated with Murray – reasonable clues are given you, but not spoonfed.

    Sexpots? That seems sexist; both Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara were given worthy acting challenges and acquitted themselves admirably; there is a layer of “sexpot” facade to both characters, I suppose; did you miss the vulnerable “first-date” scene with Stone & Turturro, or the intimacy and discomfort between Vergara and Stone?

    There’s no reason you have to love this movie, but the questions you ask suggest that either you were distracted when you saw it, or you are unfamiliar with the unspoken grammar of human relationships.

  • Way late on a reply here, but thought I might as well:

    We’re introduced to Murray’s proposal so quickly that I didn’t have much time to register that he was “amplifying” his dermatologist’s wishes; or to understand why his dermatologist would discuss this with him; or why the dermatologist would nonetheless be willing to pay top dollar for the privilege of meeting a guy who’s generally pretty nice.

    I didn’t find the scene where Murray “convinced” Avigal that she needs physical contact particularly convincing itself, maybe because it utterly lacked any details, and for some reason the movie relies on the massage table to convey what she’s been told about this guy. I didn’t find this cleverly subtle; I just found it confusing, why the movie didn’t have Allen’s character come out and refer to him as a masseur or something to that effect. And it still wasn’t clear to me whether Turturro knew what Avigal wanted. Or why she was attracted to him beyond him treating her with basic human decency. Or why she was attracted to Liev Schreiber’s character, for that matter.

    It’s the movie that I found utterly unfamiliar with human relationships. I think in general, they’re more spoken than Turturro realizes.

    Some audiences seem to like it, though, and it certainly got some decent reviews. But to me it feels like a rough draft at best.

  • Totally agree with your astute and amusingly acerbic crit, Jesse – unbelievably pisspoor stuff from Turturro/Allen! Entirely lacking in any psychological, emotional or dramatic credibility. I sat in the cinema gawping at it for twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty minutes, with a subliminally depressing leaching of the day’s previous good humuour; then my wife whispered in my ear ‘ this is crap, shall we go?’ And go we did! Out into the warm night air of London in early summer. We walked around the streets of Chelsea and talked about the Matisse exhibition, drank some coffee, walked a bit more, then, having restored our own authentic sense of artistic values, drove home. I recommend such a course of action to anyone seeking to detox from this utter cinematic pap!

  • Pathetic movie. I wasted my time watching this excuse for a movie. It’s slmost inconceivable that any director could squander the talents of so many “A” list actors. It was shallow, dismissive to me as an intelligent observer, the story line was almost impossible to believe….I was hoping as the movie progressed, that it was going to take me somewhere…..anywhere where it ended up would have been better than where it dumped me off. The only genuine emotion Shown in the entire movie was when the Jewish woman started to gently cry when he touched her for the first time. John turturro is exposing himself here, sorry to say, as a one dimensional director, writer and actor.