Watching FADING GIGOLO the new movie written, directed by, and starring John Turturro, is like joining a crazy conversation in progress– and trying to catch up. Woody Allen plays an old bookseller named Murray– who is closing up shop, but is hardly out of ideas. In fact, he’s got a dilly: he’s pitching his friend Fioravante (Turturro) an interesting proposition suggested by his very wealthy dermatologist (Sharon Stone); she’s interested in a menage a trois with her girlfriend played by Sofia Vergara. Murray thinks Fioravante is the right guy for the job– and maybe they could make a little money on the side. Turturro apparently has many skills– he’s also sold books, is a part time florist, and may know something about plumbing– and women.
Allen lives with an African-American woman and her kids who call him “Uncle Mo”; when one of the little boys gets lice they contact a “lice lady,” who happens to be a Hasidic Jew–a widow named Avigal with six children and is played by the lovely French actress Vanessa Paradis. She is silently loved by the local community guardian played by Liev Shreiber in Hasidic garb and long curls on either side of his head called payess. Allen decides the lonely Avigal could also benefit from a meeting with Fioravante– who promptly falls in love with her.
Are you with me– because I wasn’t sure where I was. The insane plot reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy where odd characters couple up in the forest of Arden and romantic roundelays are propelled by the fizz of incandescent poetry. Here, Manhattan is the alchemical wood wherein strange bedfellows meet, and this world is infused with sex. I was almost driven nuts by the randomness of events, the unexplained relationships, and Woody’s twitching and slurring– his comic timing has lapsed for sure– though there was also something familiar and comfortable about his character’s relentlessness in the face of time.
Which brings me to John Turturro. By some miracle his character Fioravante (which in Italian literally means “flower in front,”) is in full bloom. He is the grandest and most startling character here. He is not beautiful, but he is as sexy as hell and I’m not sure how he does it; I could not take my eyes off him. His gaze is cocksure, his confidence haunting, his gentleness gets under your skin. When he slowly and deliberately takes Sharon Stone’s brittle dermatologist by the waist and dances with her in her penthouse in broad daylight, we know she is in good hands.
He is also up to the fiery Vergara, as she leads him in a salsa around her apartment. But most enchanting of all, we know he will have his heart broken by the fragile Avigal. Turturro’s and Paradis’ initial simple scene together is a beauty — the camera and Turturro take their time, lingering over her back as he barely touches her there, close up on her delicate features crumpling from the seismic shock.
Comic relief comes too when Murray, kidnapped by Jewish elders, is put on trial, and Bob Balaban pops in as Murray’s lawyer. It’s an hilarious scene that makes explicit the cultural load Avigal– and all of us carry one way or another, a load that Fioravante has ever so tenderly lightened, and at some risk to his own heart. What does it all mean? That where there is love there is also sorrow? True enough. And the film is a bittersweet idyll that allows us to take some comfort and pleasure in watching a fading gigolo as willing as Fioravante–to ignite passion and pursue life in full flower.