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Fading Gigolo: A little John Turturro goes a long way. Too much is plain revolting

John Turturro's fifth film as director is remarkable for getting so much wrong. The characters are vacuous, it misfires comically, but worst of all is his choice of leading man.

Can't buy me love: John Turturro (left) and Woody Allen.

Fading Gigolo (15)
dir: John Turturro

Fading Gigolo begins in a bookshop. Its elderly owner, Murray, is recounting to his fiftysomething pal Fioravante a conversation he had with his dermatologist. The skin doctor and her female friend were interested in experiencing a threesome and wondered if Murray knew anyone who could oblige. Murray suggested Fioravante and a price tag of $1,000. Despite Fioravante’s lack of experience in male prostitution (he is a plumber and a florist), he gives a shrug of consent.

In no time, the two men are in cahoots: Fioravante the impassive stud and Murray his enterprising pimp, drumming up business and taking a cut of the profits. With or without the jazz score trying to persuade us that what we are watching is funny and spry, this would be a peculiar start to a light comedy. It couldn’t feel any loopier if the pimp were played by Woody Allen in a rare departure from his own films and the dermatologist by Sharon Stone, or if the film climaxed at a tribunal of Hasidic elders. All of which happens to be the case.

John Turturro, who wrote and directed Fading Gigolo, takes the lead role of Fioravante, which is the first sign that all will not be well. Turturro is an accomplished miniaturist capable of suggesting entire lives in the briefest of screen time. He was electrifying as a craven hood in Miller’s Crossing and a paedophile bowler in The Big Lebowski, both films by the Coen brothers. But a leading man he is not. He is the acting equivalent of coriander. A little goes a long way and too much is plain revolting.

He is not his usual overbearing self in Fading Gigolo. He isn’t really anything. The part he has written for himself is large and broadly flattering, yet faint to the point of being no part at all. It’s not only that Fioravante is vacant: cinema’s best-known stud, Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, was hardly the sharpest six-shooter in the saloon but at least he was full of chaos and conflict. Fioravante’s only distinguishing quality is his ability to bring sexual pleasure to any woman at will. Oh, and he’s not bad at flower-arranging. As complex characterisation goes, it’s not quite Hamlet.

That sweaty liaison with the dermatologist promises to make this a skin flick in both senses of the word. The real focus of the story, though, is Fioravante’s involvement with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a rabbi’s widow. He helps to coax her out of her grief with his sensitive hands and his complete lack of discernible personality. In Fading Gigolo, men give fulfilment and pleasure to women. What women bring to men is unclear, apart from gratitude and a nice boost to the ego.

In the margins of the film, odd scenes pile up like leaves in autumn. The neighbourhood patrol officer Dovi (Liev Schreiber) twigs that the pimp Murray has been behaving strangely. Dovi hides with his deputy in the bushes while the old man is leading a softball game in the park between his four African-American stepchildren and a
group of naive young Hasidim. What are the chances that those tykes will hit a home run that clocks one of the snoops on the head? We can only hope there will be some jaunty music to tell us when to laugh.

It would be misleading to suggest that the film falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. But a degree of obscure pleasure can be derived from the wrong-headedness of everything about it, from title to conception to tone; from music to editing and even the placement of the camera.

If in doubt, Turturro opts for an extreme high or low angle, or a crane shot swooping down on to the action. And he is in doubt a lot. Despite this being his fifth feature film (his previous work includes the 2005 musical Romance & Cigarettes), he gets almost nothing right. Though on reflection, perhaps that is unfair. I shouldn’t have said “almost”.

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