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

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”.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era