Fading Gigolo
directed by John Turturro
Millennium Entertainment

A cineaste’s fantasy of omnipotence is to write, direct, and star in his or her own film. Orson Welles and Spike Lee did so early in their careers. Agnès Varda did so late in hers and in some of her shorter films. But the only person since Charlie Chaplin to do so again and again is Woody Allen. In the past decade, he has given up on self-stardom, but the fantasy has found a new face in the talented character actor John Turturro. To achieve it, he reached out to Allen.

Turturro made his reputation in the films of Spike Lee and the Coen brothers and has gone on to blockbusters. He has directed on Broadway, and tried writing and directing films, but his best effort, Romance & Cigarettes (2005), never found an audience.

His new film, Fading Gigolo, began as a sort of joke. As he explained in the New York Times, he and Allen have the same barber in New York City. One day while getting his hair cut and sharing his dream of glory, Turturro came up with a wild idea for a movie: he would play a ho and Woody Allen would be his pimp. In due course Allen showed up for his own haircut, and the barber passed on the idea.

Why Allen, with his history of sexual scandal, would want to play a pimp is a question only he can answer. And he is not known for acting in other people’s films, of course. But much to Turturro’s surprise, Allen rang him up and said he was interested.

Turturro would now have to turn the wild idea into a screenplay with Allen looking over his shoulder. Although Allen is not credited as a writer, he reviewed drafts, made suggestions, and improvised most of his own lines. Turturro seems to have succumbed to the Zelig identity disorder: Fading Gigolo, with its whimsy and irony, feels very much like a Woody Allen movie. Among other Allen signatures, it features the cityscapes of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the absurdist humor, the surprising moments of sophisticated intelligence, the fractured plot, and the unexpectedly touching glimpses into the human condition.

But it may not have started out that way. In his first draft Turturro imagined casting the octogenarian Elaine Stritch as a nun who wanted to have sex once before she died: the fading gigolo’s first client would be an eighty-year-old virgin. (Stritch, like Turturro, grew up Catholic.) Allen was not impressed. Perhaps to appeal to Allen’s Jewishness, Turturro kept brainstorming and tapped into his family life: Turturro, of Italian descent, has a Jewish wife. They met at the Yale School of Drama where both trained. In fact, some critics believe that Turturro’s best performance was as Primo Levi in a little noticed Italian film, The Truce (1997). He summoned up the heart and soul of the famous chemist and writer, the Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz only inexplicably to commit suicide. Something of that sensitive, melancholic Levi can be seen in Turturro’s Fading Gigolo. And it is probably not a coincidence that Turturro used Marco Pontecorvo, the cinematographer of Truce, for this film. He is the son of the famous Italian-Jewish filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, director of the great Battle of Algiers (1966).

Possibly these connections are what inspired Turturro to change the Catholic nun into Avigal, an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman. The widow of a Hasidic rabbi, she is the mother of six children and regrets not having more. Emotionally restrained and sexually repressed by the religious customs she embraces, she is as innocent of erotic pleasure as the imagined Catholic nun. For this role, Turturro cast the French singer-actress Vanessa Paradis, best known to American moviegoers for her decade-long relationship with superstar Johnny Depp.Gigolo is her first American film, and the dignity of her performance helps save the film from vulgarity. Allen may have prodded, but Avigal is Turturro’s creation.

One might think of Turturro’s script, like those of classic comedies, as set in two different worlds. The first portrays loveless Eros in twenty-first century Manhattan: hooking up, one night stands, women on the prowl who want to get as much as they give in sexual encounters—the only norm is to test the limits of sexual norms. This is where we find the fading gigolo’s first client: Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), a wealthy, glamorous dermatologist who hates her husband. She and her best friend, the equally glamorous Selima (Sofia Vergara), are looking for sexual adventure. The second world is Williamsburg, site of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, where orthodoxy and the Talmud dominate Eros and every aspect of life. The widow Avigal does not shake hands with men and wears a wig to cover the beauty of her hair.

Allen’s puckish pimp mediates between these two worlds. He somehow projects at age seventy-eight not the quality of a dirty old man but the childlike innocence, or is it harmlessness, that has always been his stock-in-trade.

The film opens in an antiquarian bookshop where Murray Schwartz (Allen), the third-generation owner, is closing down, presumably put out of business by the Internet. His longtime friend and part-time employee Fioravante (Turturro) is helping him pack up the remaining volumes. They are both facing economic ruin. But Murray has an idea for a new joint venture when Dr. Parker, his dermatologist, tells him she wants to try a threesome. Murray has just the man for the job. A practiced businessman, he quickly sets the price: a thousand dollars an hour. The man he has in mind is sad-eyed Fioravante. Melancholic and middle-aged, Fioravante does not think of himself as a lady’s man, certainly not a gigolo. But Murray, who will prove to be right, insists that Fioravante has a way with women—he is the kind of sensitive, earthy man they like. Fioravante initially demurs. Unlike Murray he has scruples. But his only income comes from a part-time job in a flower shop, and he is finally convinced by the shrinking balance in his checkbook.

Dr. Parker decides she wants to try out Murray’s man on her own before committing to the threesome. Fioravante arrives at her luxury apartment with an elegant Japanese floral arrangement he has prepared himself. He is more like a man on a first date than a seasoned sex worker.

As the scene unfolds, we discover this is Dr. Parker’s first time paying for sex: she is as uneasy as Fioravante. There is music playing, and Fioravante breaks the tension by dancing with her. He proves to be just what the doctor would have ordered had she known what she wanted. Dr. Parker rewards him generously, and he returns to Murray with a cash-filled envelope. Fioravante performed twice, stayed for two hours, and got a $500 tip. Murray takes his 40 percent, and they seal their deal by taking new business names. Fioravante will be Virgil and Murray will be Dan. Their motto? “Virgil and Dan doing the best we can.” And they do very well. A parade of women, recruited by Dan, have gratifying encounters with Virgil, whose melancholy dissipates as his self-esteem and bank account prosper.

Meanwhile an equally far-fetched subplot is developing. Murray lives with an African American woman and her children, but we never find out why. They seem to have a domestic if not conjugal relationship. One of the boys has gotten hair lice and Murray takes him off to the “lice lady,” the Hasidic widow Avigal. While she calmly combs the nits out of the child’s hair, Murray tries to persuade her that she needs some other kind of human contact. Paradis says that her scenes with Woody were the most difficult because he improvised all of his lines; that may explain the bemused smile on her face. Does she know what Murray is getting at from the start, or does she naively believe he is proposing a visit to a Jewish masseuse and grief therapist? Her Mona Lisa is a perfect foil to Woody’s shtick. In his self-deprecation and benevolence, he shows himself to be a mensch. He spends all of his ill-gotten gains on his African American family. And, enlisting the children, he introduces Avigal’s Yeshiva boys to the great American game of baseball.

Allen and Turturro have wonderful chemistry on the screen. But it would be a mistake to give Allen too much of the credit. Fioravante, the gigolo with a heart of gold, is the star of the film. He convinces us that sex workers provide more than casual sex: they help overcome loneliness. And it is his Catholic superego that creates and negotiates the dialectic of sex and religion. He and Avigal meet in soul and spirit but not in flesh. Out of this precious and improbable intimacy comes the possibility of love. That possibility will defeat the Gigolo’s performance in the threesome, but Dr. Parker diagnoses the problem, and Selima gives Virgil her blessing—proving that even in the twenty-first century the promise of love matters.

One might expect this tale to follow the comedic pattern by ending with Avigal marrying Fioravante. “You bring magic to the lonely,” she tells him. But she surprises everyone by going back to Williamsburg. When Dovi (Liev Schreiber), the Hasidic hulk who has long loved Avigal, wins out, he asks Fioravante skeptically, “You’re not really Jewish?” Fioravante answers, with a sly smile, “I don’t know.” And perhaps Turturro also doesn’t know. The fading gigolo is ready to give up his newfound vocation under the spell of unrequited love, but a new erotic possibility enters the final scene. It seems that Virgil and Dan will go back to doing the best they can.

With Gigolo, Turturro has fulfilled his fantasy of omnipotence. Perhaps he will not be too disappointed if audiences who fail to look closely think they have seen another Woody Allen movie.