Woody Allen's presence in John Turturro's new movie may represent something like an imprimatur, suggesting that his influence extends beyond the pictures he himself directs. Presumably filtered through Turturro's imagination, "Fading Gigolo," like it or not, seems very like one or another Woody Allen movie.
The setting, the simple plot and situation, along with an essential implausibility, should ring some reminiscent bells. Allen plays Murray, a failed bookseller closing up his business with the help of his part-time employee, Fioravante (Turturro). He tells Fioravante that his married dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), wants to experience a threesome with her girlfriend, for which she will pay a thousand dollars; serving as his "manager," he will naturally take a cut of the gigolo's fee.
After a good deal of persuasion, he convinces his friend to take the job, which initially entails a one-on-one tryout with the doctor. Fioravante performs so well that he soon collects a batch of clients, apparently through word of mouth, and satisfies them all according to their wishes and desires. Parker's girlfriend Selima (Sofia Vergara), for example, likes her sex rough and decidedly kinky, and the flexible gigolo kindly cooperates.
The inevitable (and utterly artificial) complications arise when Fioravante falls in love with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the lovely young widow of a rabbi, which arouses the jealousy of Dovi (Liev Schreiber) the chief of the Hasidic neighborhood watch. That involvement, innocent and romantic, leads to a silly comic sequence in which the Hasidim kidnap Murray and try him in a rabbinical court.
Turturro clutters up the thin plot with a good deal of extraneous material, including Murray's unusual domestic situation, his attempts to teach Avigal's studious sons to play baseball, and some glimpses of Hasidic attire and customs, like Avigal's refusal to shake hands with a strange man or the rules that require her to wear a wig. Although Turturro plays the title role, Woody Allen occupies far too much of the picture, even to the point of weakening whatever emotional potential exists in the character and his sexual adventures. Unable to develop the script much beyond its initial premise, Turturro apparently ran out of ideas and, in the Woody Allen tradition, threw in gags.
Perhaps the greatest problem with the movie derives from its consistent implausibility. Though rooted in a relatively authentic representation of ordinary daily life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, it constructs its action on some preposterous assumptions, the chief of them the notion that wealthy, beautiful, terrifically desirable women would need to pay thousands of dollars for sex with a gigolo. It asks the audience to believe that a young widow perhaps in her 30's would have six children, some of them teenagers -- and she started late, she tells Fioravante.
Aside from its bevy of lovely women -- no longer young, Sharon Stone still looks sensationally sexy -- "Fading Gigolo" of course depends upon the performances of the two male stars. With slight variations, Woody Allen generally repeats the roles he's played in dozens of movies, most of them his own work. Jumpy, neurotic, garrulous, he plays the feckless Murray pretty much as if he were playing himself all over again, even using some of his characteristic catch phrases and reaction shots.
John Turturro, on the other hand, creates a nice contrast to Allen's character, playing a soft-spoken, essentially gentle man who ultimately eases gracefully into his new job, dancing an acceptable tango with one woman, agreeing to some extreme activity with another, treating Avigal with a touching tenderness. In "Fading Gigolo" he demonstrates a passive acting style, a restraint that suits the movie's frequent pauses and silences.
The film suggests further instances of the Woody Allen touch, particularly in its camera work, capturing the look and, more important, the feel of a couple of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The soft, not-quite-sepia hues of many of its establishing shots replicate some of the Allen style in some of his best pictures, a sort of nostalgia for the present, and a vision that may not actually exist but remains a distinguishing element in his work. John Turturro may eventually direct something less derivative and more substantial than "Fading Gigolo," but for now, it's his own version of Woody Allen.