It’s not very often that you find a movie which explores both male prostitution and Hassidic Judaism. It is even more rare when both of them come out looking kind of charming. But that is where this wistful comedy finds itself. And it is all the more amiable for it.
Written and directed by (and starring) actor John Turturro, Fading Gigolo is a sweet and subtle look at the vast tapestry that is New York City (and the five boros).
The film has a shocking strong cast for such a small labor of love – including Sharon Stone, Sophia Vergara, Liev Schreiber, French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis and a rare non-directing acting role by Woody Allen. (Allen has done other people’s films periodically over the years, like The Front andScenes From A Mall, but hasn’t in years, most recently providing the lead voice in the 1998 animated filmAntz.)
Beyond acting in the film, Turturro told us in a recent press conference that Allen was also very involved in the rewriting process of the film. Which makes sense, because even if it didn’t star the man, it would be tough not to notice that Fading Gigolo has the feel of one of Allen’s more whimsical culture clash films. Like much of Allen’s best work, it is comic, but with a deep undercurrent of melancholia.
Turturro also has an adventurous spirit in casting, which works for him much better than may be expected. Who in the world came up with the idea of French chanteuse Paradis as a Hassidic Jewish widow? Or professional tough guy Liev Schreiber as a shy orthodox Jewish policeman? Or Woody as a feckless pimp? Or even the writer/director himself as a male sex worker? It all seems to be such odd choices and had so much chance of failure that when the castings actually click pretty well you can’t help but smile. (Schreiber, in particular, seems to be relishing his far-against-type part.)
The storyline is simple enough. Murray (Allen) is a nebbishy aging man who has to close down the used book store he has run in Manhattan for decades. His only other employee was Fioravante (Turturro) a forty-something clerk who Murray has employed since he caught him shoplifting as a kid years before.
The two men suddenly have lots of time on their hands and no real stream of income. Through a random fluke, Murray decides to set Fioravante up with his dermatologist (Sharon Stone), a bored married woman looking for a no-strings affair. Quickly Fioravante becomes an in-demand gigolo and Murray is a completely out-of-his-element pimp.
However, there are lots of layers to Murray which would not appear to be obvious. He lives with a much younger black woman (singer Jill Scott) and is a doting father to her children. For years, Murray has lived on the outskirts of the local orthodox Jewish community, but long ago stopped being an active part of it. However, when Murray meets a lonely and sad Hassidic widow named Avigail (Paradis), he thinks that Fioravante may be the cure for her sadness.
Of course, in this staid and traditional world where a woman can not even be seen with her hair uncovered, the idea of a widow alone with a man – any man – is cause for scandal. This is ramped up by the fact that Dovi (Schreiber), a community cop, has been in unrequited love with Avigail since they were kids, and takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of exactly what is going on here.