Even setting aside the discomfort at seeing Woody Allen play a late-blooming pimp, John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo still feels tainted. Allen plays Murray, an out-of work New York City shopkeeper who convinces part-time florist Fioravante (Turturro) to do a little sex work on the side when Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) asks him if he knows anyone in that line of work. To its credit the film wastes no time getting off the ground, and very quickly Fioravante is a moderately successful “gigolo,” with Murray procuring a small pool of wealthy ladies who keep coming back for more. They split the profits 60/40.
For a time everything goes swimmingly, until Murray convinces acquaintance and young Hasidic widow Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), to pay Fioravante a visit. He doesn’t tell her his real trade, and she goes to Fioravante as a massage therapist. The deception there is morally dubious at best, goes unacknowledged, and touches upon the film’s larger problem, which stems from the way in which all of Fioravante’s clients are depicted. For a movie about a man who commoditizes his own body, it’s his female clients who are repeatedly objectified, one rich and curvaceous woman after the next. It’s hard to distinguish this from fully realized male fantasy: a man gets to have sex with many beautiful women, without commitment, for good money. The only client he doesn’t have sex with, Avigal, is the woman with whom he quickly falls in love.
Turturro directs himself serviceably as a New York everyman with a great deal on an apartment, but his wild romp as a gigolo is oddly inflected with a passivity that allows the character to sidestep any culpability while still relishing in his actions. Entering into the venture is Murray’s idea, and it’s continued by the women that keep lining up for his services. Turturro is a likable presence, but the film is too concerned with maintaining a lightness to allow for any pathos. Allen similarly turns in his usual neurotic, but with slightly less bite for having been written by someone else. As the woman with the most screen time, Paradis is understated as a deeply religious widow figuring out what she wants, making effective dramatic use out of what’s left said. But Stone’s dermatologist character remains tragically peripheral, not receiving nearly enough screen time as a woman getting her pleasurable revenge.
The city through Turturro’s eyes feels charmingly small, captured at its fall peak: Central Park is golden and green, and Brooklyn’s brownstones show off their handsome rust hues. Neighborhoods display a sense of community reflective of someone who’s lived here for decades (as Turturro has), underlying a wistful air about the film more generally. From the film’s start there’s a lament for time gone by and the things that have gone with it; the opening credits, in the style of 8mm home movies, lead into a scene of Murray packing up his bookshop for the last time. The times have changed, and so too has New York.
But there is an implicit double standard here that is hard to move past, in the form of Fading Gigolo’s surprisingly antiquated subconscious. Repeatedly expressing a longing for a different era, the story emphasizes the purity of its sole genuine romantic interest while incidentally empowering a white male protagonist in his freely expressed sexuality. The backdrop of a New York of yesteryear is nice, but it’s easy to mistake being outdated for nostalgic.