'Fading Gigolo': Turturro Juggles Pimps, Haredim and Woody Allen

The actor's fifth feature as director starts off comic and turns serious, but leaves the viewer confused because its characters lack depth.

Fading Gigolo Written and directed by John Turturro; with John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, M’Barka Ben Taleb, Bob Balaban

Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), an elegant, wealthy dermatologist, wants to have a three-way sexual encounter with her partner, Selima (Sofia Vergara), and a man. Instead of choosing someone from her social circle or going to an escort service, she decides to consult one of her patients, Murray (Woody Allen), the elderly owner of a rare book shop that is about to close for lack of customers.

This is an odd choice on the doctor’s part, and the only explanation provided by “Fading Gigolo” – the fifth feature directed by actor John Turturro – is a comment the doctor makes at one point about preferring an ordinary-looking and experienced man over some handsome young stud.

Murray sees the doctor’s query as a possible source of income after his bookstore closes. (We only see him in the store once, and later we are told that it has closed; what happens in between and how Murray reacts to the end of his life’s work is not shared with us – only one of the movie’s many odd, gaping holes.) He chooses a man for Dr. Parker: Fioravante (Turturro himself), who works in a Brooklyn flower shop and whom Murray knows as something of a ladies’ man, even though he lives alone.

At first Fioravante hesitates, but then he says yes. Dr. Parker and Selima approve of Murray’s choice, and so the flower seller and former bookstore owner, who lives with a much-younger black woman and her four children (the movie does not tell us what kind of relationship they have), start a business that enjoys a certain success.

Is this success financially meaningful? That, too, is something “Fading Gigolo” keeps vague as part of the essential misdirection at its core: What seems at first like an unusual, somewhat tawdry sex comedy unfolds into a film about emotional disconnection and the need for intimacy and love.

The story of the pimp (who gives himself the nickname “Dan Bongo,” not because he has to, but because he likes it) and his gigolo becomes secondary to the main plot line, which follows the relationship between Fioravante and Avigal (French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis in a precise, gentle and touching performance), a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish widow whose husband’s premature death – they did not even have a child together – has left her cut off from the world. She wears a wig when she goes out and avoids shaking hands with a man but craves human contact, which Fioravante proves capable of supplying.

Another significant figure is Dov (Liev Schreiber), a Haredi man who belongs to a Jewish security organization that cooperates with the New York Police Department in protecting the Brooklyn Haredi community. He is disturbed by the lonely widow’s connection with Fioravante, for both religious and personal reasons.

Opaque characters

All this might have worked, and even become a distinctive, surprising film, if only we got to know the characters better.

Murray is the most obscure: As the owner of a rare bookstore, he must be a book-lover for whom the closing of his business should be a profound loss (we can only imagine what a filmmaker like Francois Truffaut would have done with such a character and with the story, albeit in a different social and cultural context).

But “Fading Gigolo” pays no attention to this aspect of his life.

Turturro wrote the part for Woody Allen, and it feels as though he thought it would be enough to have Allen in the role, which would then gain the necessary depth from his well-known persona and presence. This does not happen, and Murray is mostly just Woody Allen; even his lines start to seem as though he wrote them himself.

The jazz score – and Allen is a known jazz lover – adds to his prominence, but Turturro has always used music in distinctive ways, and one of his movies, “Romance & Cigarettes,” was even a kind of musical comedy.

Fioravante is no less opaque. We know nothing about his past, and we learn only that in the present he is involved in some kind of relationship with a Tunisian singer (M’Barka Ben Taleb), but this side of his life is not sufficiently developed.

Turturro is a gifted actor, as he has shown in the past in the films of Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever”) and the Coen brothers (“Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski” and others). His own movies – “Mac,” Illuminata,” “Romance & Cigarettes” – were interesting, if flawed, works thanks to their unusual nature.

“Fading Gigolo” has a certain winning gentleness to it, aided by Turturro’s quiet presence and Paradis’ performance (Avigal is the only character in the movie with some depth and background). However, it also feels confused, circling itself without focusing on any one specific goal.

The materials “Fading Gigolo” wants to explore are clear enough, but the result suffers from a certain lack of creative vigor that makes it dull and even tedious to watch.

Turturro’s attempt to use a far-fetched plot situation as a beginning for a romantic comedy of human insight is impressive, as is his feat of generic misdirection – the sex-comedy elements disappear fairly early on – but this does not help the movie go beyond a fairly narrow basis of plot and emotions.

At times it seems that Turturro’s caution, restraint and modesty, which might have been among the film’s virtues, end up defeating it.