One of the great pleasures of going to the pictures regularly isn’t necessarily seeing great films. It’s finding the little oddballs, the modest entertainments that miss just as often as they hit, but leave you with the feeling that someone poured heart, soul, and a sense of humour into the work at hand. Fading Gigolo, the fifth feature from writer-director - and, of course, actor - John Turturro is one of those pictures, a three-legged cat of a movie that ambles along cheerfully and sweetly, possibly without ever quite knowing where it’s going. Still, resolute if somewhat off-kilter, it always keeps moving. And where else are you going to see the très adorable French pop star and actress Vanessa Paradis as a Brooklyn lice-picker?
In Fading Gigolo, set in a vivid and instantly recognizable New York, Woody Allen plays Murray, the owner of a rare-books store who’s being forced to close up shop. He needs money: He lives with a woman, played by Tonya Pinkins, who may be a wife, friend, or girlfriend, and is helping to support a family of four kids. As it turns out, Murray’s dermatologist has mentioned that she and her girlfriend are interested in setting up a threesome - might he know a suitable, good-looking candidate? (The movie’s casual acceptance that dermatologists in New York ask these sorts of questions is part of its intentional, go-for-broke absurdity). Murray immediately thinks of his friend, Fioravante (Turturro), a part-time florist who’s been helping out at the shop. Fioravante at first demurs, but relents because he needs money, too - and, as he comes to find out, Murray’s ‘clients’ turn out to be sultry hotties played, with gusto, by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara
But the situation gets more complicated and personal when Bongo hires Virgil out to Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a Hasidic rabbi who has crawled into a ball of self-repression after the death of her husband. Just the touch of Virgil’s hand is almost overwhelming for her, and their relationship grounds the comedy with a sweet, tender centre
Despite the preposterous nature of its central premise, Fading Gigolo gets by due to Turturro’s emphasis on the inner state of his characters, not what they’re doing. The subtle sleight-of-hand allows you to believe women as beautiful as Stone and Vergara would resort to an amiable but average-looking Joe like Turturro in order to fulfill their fantasies. The dialogue, too, has a rat-tat-tat speed that keeps you from thinking too closely about plausibility and allows the picture to sweep you along
No matter how comically saucy or ribald Fading Gigolo gets, the romantic friendship that blossoms between Avigal and Fioravante is the core, and it’s believable in large part because of Paradis’s gentle radiance. She’s a quietly expressive actress, largely under-appreciated, though not, thank God, by Turturro
Fading Gigolo is a breeze, enjoyable both for its sweetness and its unapologetic silliness. If you’ve seen Turturro’s 2005 infidelity musical Romance & Cigarettes, you know he has a knack for finding the right song for every occasion, even the zaniest, and he doesn’t fail us here. (One of the gems he turns up is the rich, buttery Canadian Sunset, by under-recognized tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons)
While the movie periodically threatens to come apart at the seams, it is Turturro’s most disciplined and delightful work yet. He still has that actor’s habit of falling in love with certain scenes, unable to break away when he should. There are a few issues with pacing and plot. But nothing so serious to distract from the fun of watching a Fading Gigolo make most, if not all, the right moves