Have you heard the one about the Woody Allen movie that was actually written and directed by John Turturro?
It’s called “Fading Gigolo” and it seems a bit in the manner of Allen from his “Mighty Aphrodite” period. Allen is the most prominent co-star for actor/writer/director Turturro.
You couldn’t ask for a more pointed – and in some ways more melancholy – illustration of a lighthearted film that now has an entirely different cast to it after the endlessly vile mess that followed from the harrowing dissolution of the Allen/Mia Farrow relationship.
In the light of that, what would have been treated in a far more lighthearted way before, now has uglier overtones as we watch Allen play a foundering rare book dealer who’s forced to pimp out his young friend, the florist, just to make ends meet.
“This is the end of an era,” rare book seller Murray (Allen) tells Fiorovante (Turturro) as they pack up the books that have been sold by generations of Murray’s family. The two men have been friends since the younger man “broke into my store and tried to rob it.”
And, by the way, says Murray, did he remember to tell Fiorovante about the beautiful woman he knows who mentioned she would like to try a menage a trois sometime?
His friend ought to consider such things from a commercial standpoint, suggests Murray. He’s always been “good with women” after all. “Are you on drugs?” responds Fiorovante. “Apart from my Zoloft, no,” says Murray, nattering away just like Allen. But, the florist protests, “I am not a beautiful man.” “You’re disgusting in a very positive way,” reassures Murray.
Very Woody Allenesque but milder and without the consummate verbal snap of the writer/director thought to be the greatest gag writer in American movies.
And so, eventually, an intrigued Fiorovante signs onto a one-time trial of Murray’s suggestion – and finds he’ll be servicing a wealthy dermatologist played by Sharon Stone. Her mountain-climbing husband is never home.
“I’m a little crazed,” she had said earlier. “I just came from an AIDS benefit.” It’s a Turturro gag calibrated to show you exactly how cozy this movie was intended to be. Stone has, in life, been one of the more effective AIDS activists among American movie actors.
Imagine, then, how all this might have come across before Allen and the Farrow family turned into the ugliest Hatfield/McCoy feud in American entertainment. Here is Turturro, a clever and very fine American character actor who has sometimes doubled as a smart independent filmmaker, doing an homage to Allen’s ribald period with co-stars Stone, Sofia Vergara and the beauteous French actress Vanessa Paradis.
Vergara plays a friend of the married dermatologist who will eventually become the third figure in the coveted menage a trois. (“If he were an ice cream cone, what flavor would you say he was?” she asks her friend about Fiorovante. Pistachio is the answer.)
Paradis plays another of the newly tricked-out gigolo’s clients, the deeply sheltered and drop-dead gorgeous widow of a rabbi who’d been married to him for 18 years and had six children with him.
Liev Schreiber plays the head of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch called the “Shonrim” who rides around in police cars and promises “sometimes we go beyond.” He has, semi-secretly, been head over heels in love with the beautiful widow for years.
In this very gentle sex farce, Schreiber is the cold water always threatening to rain down on the movie’s semi-continental pagan spirit.
Without the foul explosion of Allen’s private life, all of this might have seemed the gentlest of Allen homages – one New York actor/director paying tribute to the monarch of all New York comedy actor/directors with a big-name cast of friends warming up to the movie’s spirit.
It’s a movie in which you’re far more persuaded by the helpless love of a would-be late-life gigolo for a rabbi’s widow as she demonstrates the art of filleting a fish with a spoon than you are by a menage a trois scene with Stone and Vergara.
Its two basic jokes – Allen as pimp, Turturro as gigolo – are rather funny in their way. Murray is a civilized, if overly practical, man adjusting to an uncivilized world. Fiorovante gives us a movie gigolo who’s the anti-Richard Gere. Unlike Deuce Bigelow, he presents a weirdly plausible image of erotic competence in a decidedly unpretty package.
If you compare the movie, say, to the cable TV series “Hung,” it has absolutely none of the juvenility of the TV show and an enormous reservoir of essential Romanticism at its core that would have been far more likable if the movie had existed in a celebrity world of far more likable circumstances.
If Allen had made it 20 years ago, the lines would have sliced deeper and the story would have taken sharper left turns. Even so, he clearly enjoyed the pleasure of playing an Allenish character in someone else’s movie.
Turturro, who is a sweet-natured and brilliant character actor usually denied likability in movies, seems determined here to construct likable people doing forgivable things.
You can be on his side here even though recent American movie history isn’t.
Starring: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev Schreiber
Director: John Turturro
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: R for sex and language.
The Lowdown: A floundering rare book store owner turns into a pimp for an unlikely friend who turns Don Juan to help him out.