John Turturro is a gifted and charming actor, but he has a fatal desire to be a film director and is cursed with no talent whatsoever for the job. Passione was a pleasant but inconsequential travelogue about Naples. Otherwise, his movies are like smoke rings. They disappear on the screen at the same time you are watching them. The latest is Fading Gigolo, an empty tale about an old Jewish man who decides to become a pimp after the economic downfall forces him to close his bookshop. It stars Woody Allen, but it still drags along like an oyster trying to walk.
Fading Gigolo ★★
Written and directed by: John Turturro
In this broadly misguided concept, Woody plays Murray Schwartz, an antiquated Brooklyn bookseller. Writer-director Turturro plays his friend Fioravante, a mild-mannered florist he’s known since he was a mischievous kid. While he’s helping Murray cart away his unsold merchandise, the old man relates a visit to his dermatologist (Sharon Stone), a married woman who confesses her fantasy of staging a ménage à trois with her best friend (played by sexy, hilarious Sofía Vergara) and a man who is a total stranger. Murray casually suggests Fioravante for the job. It goes so well that he gets a $500 tip, and a cottage industry is born. With Murray as a pimp called Bongo and Fioravante as an aging, unlikely lothario who calls himself Virgil, the team moves on to its next client, a pretty Hasidic Jew and widow of a rabbi with six children named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis, a French actress with a gap in her teeth). Fioravante loves his new profession, but instead of sex, he offers the most repressed woman in Brooklyn tenderness and attention and gives her a sensual oil massage on her naked back that breaks the rules of Orthodox doctrine. Desperately smitten, Fioravante then finds himself competing with a de facto community guard from the Jewish police (Liev Schreiber) for the heart of a woman who has, by Jewish law, never been kissed. It’s up to Murray, a lapsed Jew, to respect the widow and keep the fading business going forward at the same time, but it soon becomes clear that Fading Gigolo is going nowhere fast.
With his graying hair and bags under his eyes deep enough to serve tea in, Mr. Turturro never convinces as a male prostitute women fall for, despite Ms. Stone’s declaration that “Having sex with you is like eating candy.” We never understand his character’s motivation or know who he is, and peppering questionable morality with religious rhetoric only muddies his screenplay with awkward padding. There’s one preposterous scene in which Murray, who hasn’t been inside a synagogue for years, is condemned by a court of elders quoting biblical rhetoric who look like the faces on a box of Smith Brothers cough drops. Nor does it make sense that Murray lives with a family of African Americans whose heads need delousing. Blending elements of Spike Lee and Woody himself, Mr. Turturro thinks he’s forming comic visions of New York as an idiosyncratic melting pot of clashing cultures and diversified neighborhoods, but all Fading Gigolo accomplishes is confusion.
It must be fun for Woody Allen to occasionally act within the confines of somebody else’s material, but he needs to make sure the material is worth the risk.