John Turturro has had the good fortune to work with some of the most creative filmmakers working in modern cinema, including Joel and Ethan Coen and Spike Lee. (He has also worked very closely with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison conglomerate and Michael Bay, but that is a different conversation). It turns out that Turturro is a bit of an auteur himself. I have never seen any of his earlier films, but if his latest feature, Fading Gigolo, is any indication, he has not picked up the best traits of those visionary directors.
Turturro stars as Fioravante, a cash-strapped florist who gets sucked into sex work by his similarly-struggling buddy Murray (Woody Allen). Together the two men cut a sexual swath through New York City, taking on several clients before a widow (an Orthodox Jew, mind you, played by Vanessa Paradis) looking for some sort of connection starts to gum up the works.
The casting of Allen is perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie. Turturro is not one of Allen’s regular players; as far as I can tell he only appeared in Hannah and Her Sisters, in a small role. There has got to be a story about how Allen ended up in Fading Gigolo, but I am not complaining. Allen’s Murray is easily the most compelling character in the movie, despite being nothing more than a joke delivery system. Regardless of his age – which is starting to slow him down in some ways – Allen is still startlingly prolific, and his comedic timing has not suffered at all. His performance was good enough to distract me from the recent upsetting developments in his personal life, which were certainly on my mind as I patiently waited for the feature to begin.
Allen’s visage on-screen in not the only debt Turturro owes the older gentleman; the movie certainly feels like the type of movie Allen might make. It is most evocative of 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, a film in which two playwrights tell each other drastically different stories featuring the same character, played by Radha Mitchell. Fading Gigolo also kind of feels like two movies: a raucous comedy and a bleary melodrama. Any scene featuring Allen or even the characters played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara contrasts sharply with those between Turturro and Paradis’s Avigal. This tone shift is clearly intentional on Turturro’s part, but the execution is sloppy.
There is a lot of potential in Turturro’s script. The themes of loneliness and gender are very evident, but everything is handled clunkily. I have been trying to avoid the phrase “heavy-handed” lately, but it is very applicable here, particularly in how often Turturro’s Fioravante is described by others as a “man’s man” in order to clearly point out those moments where he defies such expectations. But the aspect that stands out the most about the script is just how Jewish it is. Turturro was raised Roman Catholic, so the fact that his script is so occupied with Jewish customs and culture is a bit of a shock. But I cannot shake a somewhat anti-Semitic vibe that the movie gives off. That is a strong word, so I want to stress that I don’t think it is a conscious move by Turturro, but most of the Jewish characters – Murray aside – come off as little more than stereotypes, specifically Liev Schreiber’s Dovi, a neighborhood security officer whose payot and accent brought to mind the Hebrew Hammer more than once. Granted, I have spent very little time in the Jewish part of Brooklyn, so the depiction may be accurate, and Avigal is well-realized character, but still, perception has to count for something.
Ultimately Fading Gigolo‘s greatest weakness is its central character. Fioravante is only engaging when paired with Murray, and his emotional arc (what exists of it) pales in comparison to Avigal’s. Perhaps Turturro should have cast someone else in the role, as the rest of the movie seems to suffer as a result. The shot composition is fairly uninspired, save a few really beautiful shots of flowers and the park courtesy of cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo. Likewise with the editing, which is a bit of a mess, especially in the second half of the film, which cuts back and forth between scenes, often without rhyme or reason.
Fading Gigolo is not a terrible movie – it is legitimately funny when it wants to be, and it says some interesting things about culture – but it is a little too unfocused to be truly great. It is as if Turturro did try to emulate his more successful collaborators, but fell short of finding the spark that makes a Coen Brothers movie or a good Spike Lee joint. That’s better than going the Sandler or Bay route, though. Definitely keep the fat suits and rotating camera angles at home John; you’ve chosen your influences well.