The premise of Fading Gigolo, a new film by John Turturro, is simple enough: M. Schwartz & Sons Rare & Used Books, a quaint, red-awninged Mom-and-Pop bookstore in Downtown Manhattan, is going out of business—yet another casualty of modernity, judging by the sprawling Staples next door.
Inside, its aging proprietor, Murray, played by Woody Allen, is chatting with his longtime employee, Fioravante (Turturro, who wrote and directed the film), about a strange episode he’d overheard at his dermatologist’s office. It seems his skin technician, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone, radiant), is interested in hosting a “ménage”—as in ménage à trois—along with her friend and a man. Murray tells her he knows just the guy, but it’ll cost her $1,000. Since they’re both out of work, Murray tries to sell his boy Friday on the idea of being a gigolo.
“You were always great with women, and you know, she’s attractive,” Murray tells Fioravante. “She’s round and curvaceous…I saw her photograph of her friend in a thong and her friend is a crippler.”
After some pressure, Fioravante caves in. Following the deed, he returns to see Murray. It turns out he was such a Don Juan that she paid him $2,500—$1,000 for each hour of his time, plus a $500 tip. The ex-bookmen negotiate a 60-40 split in favor of the gigolo, and a business is born.
“I’m your ho,” says Fioravante.
“Hey, it’s the oldest profession,” Murray replies.
This is Allen’s first film—behind or in front of the camera—since Feb. 1, when his estranged stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow, penned an open letter on The New York Times’ website alleging a cycle of child sexual abuse at the hands of Allen beginning at age 7. Allen fired back in his own New York Times op-ed, claiming Farrow was brainwashed by her mother, Mia Farrow, and then Dylan responded with a point-by-point rebuttal of Allen’s claims. The very public back-and-forth cast a strange pall over awards season since Allen’s film, Blue Jasmine, was up for several Oscars.
Now Allen is back onscreen… as an excitable pimp. And it’s a pretty tough watch.
Allen’s character sits on park benches scoping out potential targets for his gigolo—rich, middle-aged women—scoops them up, and brings them back to his guy’s place for sex. In one scene set inside a Brooklyn bistro, he ogles a twenty-something French woman. In another, he’s captured in a lingerie shop, with the camera framing him in between a pair of scantily clad mannequins—one of breasts, the other a butt—where he’s discussing the parameters of a proposed ménage à trois, and jokes about his own awkward threesome attempt during a blackout in 1977. After some serious coaxing, he convinces an Orthodox Jew, played by a brilliant Vanessa Paradis, who’s still mourning the death of her rabbi-husband, to enlist the services of his “healer.” He gives himself the pimp name “Dan Bongle.”
After Dr. Parker gives a rave review of Fioravante to her partner-in-threesome, Selima (Sofia Vergara), she wants to give him a test-run of her own.
“You gotta see her…You’re not gonna believe it,” Murray tells Fioravante. “You can’t be blasé about this. She is well constructed anatomically, like a miracle of physics. I don’t know what keeps her up!”
Film is, to a degree, about escapism. But sometimes, when art imitates life, the off-screen persona of an actor can lend an extra layer to a performance. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s turn as a marooned astronaut was imbued with even greater pathos when you consider she signed on right after the whole Jesse James fiasco, while Bruce Dern’s portrayal of Woody Grant, a dementia-addled old man fixated on claiming a bogus prize in Nebraska seemed like a fitting metaphor for the journeyman actor’s career.
In Fading Gigolo, it’s hard to view Allen’s portrayal of a Brooklyn pimp without seeing it through the lens of his recent controversy. Perhaps it’s too fresh in the mind. Or perhaps we’ll never see him in the same light again.
“This is the end of an era, my friend,” mutter’s Allen’s character, opening the film. He is, of course, referring to a crate of antique books he’s packing for the repo men.