Which isn’t to say that he’s unsightly. Elegantly dressed and greying at the edges, he looks a bit like Al Pacino from Godfather 3 had he been walloped as a kid, and in Fading Gigolo — a film where beautiful women can’t help but fall for him hook, line and wallet — you kinda see what they see. You don’t see Barton Fink or Herb Stempel or Bernie Bernbaum, you see a graceful man wearing Vincent Cassel jumpers and smiling a lopsided, vaguely confident smile.
That, and he loves them tender enough to make Elvis proud.
It is this tenderness that sneaks up on the viewer in this wonderfully understated little delight, written and directed by Turturro, that gluttonously scene-stealing actor. Fading Gigolo starts off almost ludicrously whimsical and yet ends up bittersweet, a flaky tiramisu with a melancholic aftertaste. Lovely.
The laughs come — almost wholly — from Woody Allen, performing for a director other than himself after decades. Woody’s a treat. He inhabits his well-worn nebbish role, but this film subtly coaxes him out of his neurotic shell: he’s still all tics and half-phrased sentences and constant consternation, but his lines here, stripped of their persistent self-doubt, enjoy some of the delightful omniscience of his short stories. Physically, too, he’s in less familiar space, living with a dominant black woman, teaching hassidic kids baseball in a park and, more than anything, playing a newly-minted pimp eager to call himself Dan Bongo.
Turturro, his whore, is a sensitive florist called Fioravante, a man coerced into the world’s oldest profession by Allen’s Murray, who, in turn, feels there is a remarkable profit to be had in these things. There is a terrific bit between the two — the agent and the goods — about percentages. How much seems apropos, wonders Murray, in a world where art-dealers get half the money from a painting? 60-40, he thus offers, assuring his friend that the split is “favouring you.”
Fioravante doesn’t mind. He seems above the banalities of tip-sharing, more intrigued by the thought of fulfilling fantasies by stepping into the role of a lifetime. Prone to drop a devastating line or two in Italian, he comes up with ‘Virgil Howard’ as his, well, nom-de-bedroom, if you will, and treats his clients with sensitivity and silence. He seems to know the answers they want, and whispers the right nothings to sweeten them up. The results are dynamite, and his Midafternoon Cowboy is clearly a hit.
But the women, actresses familiar to us, are none of them what we expect. Sharon Stone, still striking, wears a haunted look that makes her more compelling than she’s been in ages; Sofia Vergara is fascinating as a basketball aficionado with her preferences set in stone; and the beautiful Vanessa Paradis, above all, is a rabbi’s widow who is irresistibly touching and impossible to touch. There is much to delve into with these ladies and their lives, and all of it is worth discovering without me playing spoilsport and writing out the lyrics to their songs.
An ode to Brooklyn, Turturro’s film is filled with a jaunty jazz soundtrack — putting the jig in gigolo, as it were — and is evocatively shot by Marco Pontecorvo, atypical New York views framed with dramatic flair and used as traditional backdrops. It stays away from pretension, and cleverly nudges insight our way without pushing it down our throats. There are well-measured silences, narrative hiccups and lulls, and while the film itself changes gears unpredictably enough, the filmmaker’s craft remains assuredly classical. It is a film with simple ambition and one that gives lovers of smaller movies hope: At a time when indie movies are increasingly taking pride in their verbal and grammatical incoherence, Fading Gigolo is evidence that a movie doesn’t have to mumble to be modest.
Rating: 4 stars
(First published Rediff, May 16, 2014)