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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder