Fading Gigolo (2013) — Image via arpselection.com

Fading Gigolo

Directed by John Turturro (2013)

As a longtime fan of both Woody Allen and John Turturro, I went to Fading Gigolo with high hopes. In light of the actors’ previous films, I was anticipating wry observational dialogue, neurotic world-weary humor, and just enough self-deprecation to make the characters likeable without rendering them pathetic. While Fading Gigolo did provide these elements, I was left thinking that Allen is a little better when performing his own script and Turturro (who also wrote and directed the film) is likewise stronger when under someone else’s direction and speaking someone else’s words. This isn’t to say that the film didn’t have any warmth, insight, or humor. It just wasn’t quite as warm, insightful, or humorous as a majority of the films Allen and Turturro have been involved with in the past.

Be this as it may, the film is worth seeing for the interactions between Turturro and Allen alone, which manage to be intelligent, incredulous, and gentle at the same time. Allen plays Murray, a happily married man with four children who has nothing but time on his hands after the bookstore he owned for most of his life closes. Turturro plays Fioravante, a younger, albeit not young, man who has worked for Murray for years and is strapped for cash now that his part-time job has evaporated.

As a way for both men to bolster their incomes, Murray proposes to Fioravante that he consider becoming a prostitute, partially because Murray already has two clients in mind (his dermatologist, Dr. Parker, played by Sharon Stone, and her friend Selima, played by Sofia Vergara) and partially because Murray assumes that Fioravante will succeed based on the fact that women have always liked him. After initial misgivings, Fioravante eventually agrees, albeit not without reservations about profiting off the loneliness and vulnerability of others.

Fading Gigolo (2013) — Image via arpselection.comFor this plot to be feasible, we have to buy Murray’s assertions that women find Fioravante appealing. This is something the film works very hard to establish, but the reasons it gives for Fioravante’s desirability are a bit on the clichéd side. He is good with his hands in both a traditionally masculine way (plumbing and such) but also in more feminized arts such as cooking and flower arranging. He loves his dead mother, which is nice, but this supposedly close relationship didn’t seem to cultivate any emotional openness on his part. Rather, Fioravante comes across as moody, brooding, and at times hostile. Unfortunately, this is what the film suggests makes him a good sexual partner. “You’re top shelf,” Dr. Parker tells him — largely, we are meant to think, because he never quite satisfies her needs. In this way, Fading Gigolo seems to posit the notion that most women really want their men aloof and unreachable — Heathcliff syndrome, as one of my college professors called it.

While there may be some validity to the idea that some women (and men too for that matter) fantasize about partners whose sole purpose is to be sexual, this type of relationship is fairly boring to watch unfold because, again, it tends to come packaged in clichéd predictability. While part of Fioravante’s appeal is that he can be physically intimate with women who don’t then have to remind him take out the garbage or pick up the kids from school, this type of encounter is ultimately not as satisfying as watching a couple learning how to balance the erotic with the banal. Escapism pales in comparison to finding a way to situate the sexual as one thread in the complex web two people build together.

Fioravante’s icy persona isn’t only off-putting when he is interacting with the clients he cares little about. When he begins to fall in love with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a Hasidic widow whose loneliness has led her, through Murray’s intervention, to Fioravante for massages, dinner, and walks in the park, Fioravante develops the annoying habit of saying things to her in foreign languages and then translating them into English. I’m sure this is meant to show how romantic and cultured he believes himself to be, but I found it to be insufferable, an attempt to render simple insights profound, and a way to lord his worldliness over a woman who has probably only left Brooklyn a handful of times in her life.

Fading Gigolo (2013) — Image via arpselection.comFioravante’s love for Avigal culminates in a stroll around Central Park where Fioravante strips Avigal of her wig, telling her that she doesn’t need to hide herself from him. While the act is no doubt meant to be one of tenderness, it reeks of the savior fantasy, especially when coupled with other moments in the film that suggest the extent to which Avigal’s religious faith imprisons her intellectually, emotionally, and physically. What’s more, we are largely meant to think that a good deal of Avigal’s allure arises from the fact that, as an Orthodox Jew, she will not have sex with Fioravante. While it’s touching to see what the two characters do together in lieu of sex, one can’t help but feel that Avigal’s worth, as far as Fioravante is concerned, lies in her sexual inaccessibility. While Fioravante’s characterization presents idealized masculinity as a perpetual state of emotional impotence, the conflation of Avigal’s chastity with her worthiness suggests that the women worth falling in love with are the ones who don’t put out. While the film is not particularly cruel toward the women who hire Fioravante for sexual servicing, it certainly does suggest that Avigal is somehow a more valuable catch than the rich and lonely floozies who are Fioravante’s more typical clients.

Despite Avigal’s sexual purity, we eventually discover that she has been using her time with Fioravante to overcome her loneliness after the death of her husband. Fioravante, we learn, is a necessary stepping stone in Avigal’s larger plan to eventually settle down with Dovi (Liev Schrieber), a man from her neighborhood who is clearly in love with her. Whereas Fioravante frets about the ethical ins and outs (so to speak) of profiting off of other people’s loneliness and worries that he is constantly using people, it turns out that Avigal has been using him to gain the emotional stability needed to begin her relationship with Dovi. All of this using, of course, questions the extent to which all relationships are based, at least to some degree, on the manipulation of others. From here the film asserts that while self-interest is certainly never absent from human interactions, it does not stand to reason that some pleasure cannot still be reaped from relationships centered largely upon profit and opportunism. This idea that some amount of happiness or satisfaction can be derived from interactions that are, at best, awkward, and, at worst, mercenary, is one of the film’s strengths.

Fading Gigolo (2013) — Image via arpselection.comAnother thing Fading Gigolo manages to do very well is avoid seediness, no small feat in a story about prostitution. The conversations between Fioravante and Murray remain genial and respectful, even when they are joking about how Murray has become a pimp. Similarly, Fioravante’s clients manage to be likeable despite the fact that most of them are cheating on their husbands. In one particularly amiable scene, Dr. Parker and Selima initially criticize Fioravante for his lackluster sexual performance, but then realize that his distraction stems from the fact that he has fallen in love with Avigal. The scene ends with the two women warmly cooing and congratulating Fioravante, and as we see by the envelope he leaves with, they don’t withhold payment just because Fioravante hasn’t held up (so to speak) his end of the bargain.

While Turturro’s script misses the mark sometimes (Avigal’s children talk more like fifty-year-old rabbis than children), Murray’s lines are another highlight of the film. Even as a fan of Allen’s work, I’ve never seen him so likeable; he manages to come off as just anxious and off-kilter enough, but not so much so that he loses sight of his responsibilities to his family and his friends. Even scenes where he is flirting with women who are a third of his age somehow seem sweet instead of sleazy. Off screen, I know Allen is a polarizing figure, and while critics are probably not going to be won over by this performance alone, viewers who found him less than likeable in such films as Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979) might enjoy his portrayal of a loveable goof who goes about doing not quite alright things in order to make people a little bit more alright than they were before. Happiness is highly flawed in Fading Gigolo; it is often partial, exploitative, or begrudgingly given, but it exists even in its fractured and imperfect state. And this is something.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.