John Turturro ’s Fading Gigolo is a delicate movie about indelicate matters. No, wait, perhaps it’s an indelicate movie about delicate matters. The uncertainty does the film no harm but it seems to have prompted critics to simplify their doubts and decide they have seen it all before. It’s true the film owes a lot to Woody Allen, and not just because he has a major acting part in it. It owes a lot to the Coen Brothers too. But it entirely lacks the angry edge that marks the later Allen films and its quirkiness is quieter than even the quietest moments in the works of the Coen Brothers. Critics have mentioned Spike Lee too, and one can see the resemblances: the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the jazz in the soundtrack, the criss-crossing ethnic territories. But Lee’s films are fast and busy and Fading Gigolo, however weird the movements of its plot, is very calm. It is also alarmingly good-natured, and treats its own improbabilities as if they were fantasies to be lived with rather than laughed at or measured against any sort of reality.
The first set of improbabilities involves the new career of the elderly Murray, played by Woody Allen. We see him closing his bookshop, the shelves empty, the remaining leather-bound treasures packed in a truck. He needs a fresh source of income and it so happens that not only is his dermatologist Sharon Stone but she has confided to him that she has a yearning for extramarital sex, perhaps out of hatred for her husband, perhaps out of a long-repressed urge simply to transgress a little. She’s willing to pay, she wants a gigolo, not a relationship. I’m not sure that dermatologists have a characteristic look, but if they do, it isn’t the high-colour glossy style of the doctor in this movie. And if you can imagine Sharon Stone needing help in transgressing you have a better imagination than I do. She plays the part with brilliant relish, the rich worldly woman pretending she doesn’t know the world. The gigolo Murray provides for her is scarcely more credible. He is Fioravante, owner of a flower shop, played by John Turturro, reluctantly recruited for the job, but he is glad to have the money and in his glum, stolid way, likes the idea of himself as a pleaser of women. Again it’s easy to imagine glamorous men for rent and even easier to picture personifications of sleaze. Not so easy to get our heads around, let’s say, a slow, tall, bewildered version of Chico Marx in the role.
The dermatologist came to Murray, he didn’t need to do any self-promoting or seeking of clients, and the dermatologist’s friend (Sofía Vergara), another woman who wants to pay to play around, approaches him too. She’s an even less likely candidate than Sharon Stone, since she is all Latin bounce and twinkle and bosom, and suggests not so much a rich woman looking for pleasure as a once-poor woman who got rich by enjoying it.
We begin perhaps to get the structure of the larger joke here. No one in the story looks as if they could be in the story, but there they are. And when the two women contact Fioravante for a quiet evening à trois, you’d think they would be disappointed when he fails to perform in the middle of a pile-up. No, they are too nice for that, they laugh kindly, and conclude that he is in love, he can’t screw just anyone any more. I hate to sound cynical, but this gentle, generous reaction to a non-delivery strikes me as more improbable than anything I have mentioned so far. Appealing for this reason, of course: the point of fairy tales is not the wish they fulfil but the particular reality they ignore or invert.
Murray does have to work to get other clients, and his prize is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a young Hasidic widow who needs to escape from her stultifying life and the eager attentions of Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a Brooklyn community safety officer with earlocks and a patrol car. Murray inventively casts Fioravante as a masseur, and the resulting intimacy is excruciating but also limited, and the big pay-off is a polite, intimate dinner rather than the more serious physical conjunction Murray had in mind. Paradis is wonderfully staid and amiable and the gap in her front teeth is an emblem of unreconstructed innocence. When she tells Fioravante that his job, which she understands perfectly in its more vulgar aspect, is to bring a touch of magic into people’s lives, it’s a terrible line but she says it with such awkward sincerity, and he responds with such embarrassed delight, that you think there must be something in the claim. At least you think they’re in love and this oblique, unlikely romance is promising in movie terms. But that isn’t what she means. Fioravante is falling in love with her, and that is what his impotence with the ladies suggests. Avigal, however, only means that if you desperately need air in your airless life, anyone who can give it to you, in whatever way and for whatever motive, is a magician. She may even think that is what the very idea of a gigolo stands for.
Avigal is rebuilding her life with Fioravante’s help, and in one of the film’s genuinely brilliant moments, when we think the next move in the story will continue the intercultural romance, she tells Dovi to stop talking about how much he loves her in spite of her not loving him. ‘I never said I didn’t love you,’ she announces. This is true, and she never said she did either; but the remark is enough to delight him and to turn the film in a new direction. Dovi takes her in his patrol car to say goodbye to Fioravante, and she does, with due grace and solemnity. Dovi, who has been standing apart, approaches Fioravante and says: ‘You’re not Jewish, are you?’ Fioravante, after a well-considered pause, says: ‘I’m not sure.’ He knows he’s not Jewish in the way Dovi and Avigal are, because he’s Italian. But in New York there are many ways of being Jewish.
These include being hauled up before a Hasidic court, as Murray is once his pimping business becomes common knowledge. It’s not at all clear what sort of jurisdiction the court has, but it scares the life out of Murray. Not for long, though. A French girl in a coffee shop looks as if she might benefit from Fioravante’s attentions, Murray would get his 40 per cent cut as before, and the film ends with the two men ready to take up their trade again. Ageing yes, fading no.
Woody Allen plays the Woody Allen he always is, in his own or other people’s movies, shuffling, mumbling, a little devious, prone to the dark wisecrack – who else would mention a pogrom as the next natural disaster after an earthquake? But he has developed, or he and Turturro have developed together, a strangely effective philosophical tone in his dialogue and delivery. Murray needs money, he likes money, but he believes in something like the magic Avigal identifies. He’s not a benefactor, either of his clients or of his friend Fioravante, but he does think that change can only be radical, a step out into the unexpected and, perhaps necessarily, the immoral or unapproved. A comic version of his principle is seen in the baseball game he organises between the children of his African-American partner and Avigal’s, a chance for violent cultural clash if ever there was one. The idea of baseball is as strange to these Orthodox kids as the kids are to the black boys. How are they going to pick the teams? Black versus white, one of the children says. That’s out of the question, Murray says, and selects the mixed teams himself.
What the film as a whole suggests in its easy-going but also melancholy way is that ethnic divisions in America may be forms of imprisonment, the melting pot a set of walled-off cells. Unless you understand your own culture and embrace it, as Avigal does hers – once she has proved its non-inevitability. She could also have escaped, as others have. The point of the delicacy/indelicacy balance is that crass moral questions are great ways of stumbling into other questions. The idea of a magician-gigolo would be sentimental if it weren’t comic, and if it weren’t comic we wouldn’t even think about it. The melancholy creeps in when you remember how fantastic all this kindness and patience and acceptance of the lives of others is. Only in the movies.