By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
You know how doctors have this code where they rarely badmouth each other? Well, that doesn’t hold for film critics. So, at the risk of being banned from reindeer games, I have no compunction about telling you to completely disregard those movie reviewers who don’t wax positively about John Turturro’s delightfully soulful “Fading Gigolo.” They don’t know from borscht, and that’s compulsory in this case.
This is a sweet little film with that Indie look and feel that says it isn’t afraid to be smart, philosophical, wittily seriocomic and a tad irreverent, even if it means appealing to only a niche audience. Written and directed by Mr. Turturro, otherwise a thespic favorite of the Brothers Coen and Spike Lee, it is a labor of love about love, and a few other necessities.
Whimsically establishing a naughtily indulgent fantasy, Mr. Turturro casts himself as Fioravante, an introspective survivor of life’s uncertain pageant whose flower-arranging gig has been cut to two days a week. Concurrently, his best friend, kindred spirit and elder advisor, Murray, a fellow Brooklynite portrayed by Woody Allen, is being forced to shutter his landmark Schwartz’s Rare Books. “It takes a rare person to buy rare books.” Smell wood burning? That’s Murray looking to turn lemons into lemonade.
Casually noting that Fioravante, who he has taken under wing ever since he caught the kid trying to steal a book, is a handsome man, Murray suggests that he might be able to make a good buck as a gigolo. He quickly adds that just recently his dermatologist, Dr. Parker, played by Sharon Stone, curiously shared that she’d like to try a ménage à trois. Fact is, there are lots of lonely ladies, neglected flowers he just might cultivate. In short, there’s gold in them thar penthouses, and for a fee, Murray is willing to help him mine it.
The repartee leading up to their compact as Don Juan and procurer serves as exposition and relater of backstory while setting the tone for the feature length, bittersweet bantering that entertains us throughout the film. We’re sure Mr. Allen was allowed to adlib where he wished, and that Mr. Turturro doubtlessly availed himself of this legendary resource on his set. But a funny thing happens on the way to the humorously dramatic doings: We mistakenly come to regard it as a Woody Allen film. That’s problematic.
Aside from fostering erroneous expectations, it tends at times to swerve us from the rightful auteur’s intents and sentiments. Happily, the plot and the intelligently depicted emotions energizing it ultimately rise above the inevitable misconception. Still, there’s no discounting the welcome power of Woody’s trademark shtick.
Messrs. Allen and Turturro make a fine duo. Adding savvy to an old saw, they play off each other like a contemporary Laurel and Hardy that’s been sophisticated and given a New York point of reference. Actually, Brooklyn, and more specifically, the Hasidic section of Williamsburg. From there emanates their heartfelt rascality.
Caught in the swirl of their entrepreneurial gambit is the melancholic Avigal, widowed rabbi’s wife and mother of six, enchantingly portrayed by Vanessa Paradis. In seeking to solicit her business, Mr. Allen’s Murray, who makes “Mr. Bongo” his professional pimp moniker, embodies the wiles of human rationalization. Because Avigal is so terribly lonely, he justifies his, er, matchmaking, as social work…a mitzvah, as they say.
The curious comings and goings aren’t lost on Liev Schreiber’s Dovi, a member of the Shomrim (neighborhood watch group) who’s been in love with the rebbetzin ever since he was little. Fioravante soon understands why. The plot thickens, push comes to shove and age-old conflicts clash with humorous and potentially cataclysmic result.
It’s a screwball comedy wrapped in a fancifully shaped sociological treatise that skirts, like its protagonists, along the edges of political correctness and morality, all along challenging our own levels of tolerance. Mr. Turturro’s script champions multiculturalism whilst paying skeptically comic homage to tradition and convention.
Counterpoising scenarios breathe quixotic flourish into the exploration of divergent folkways and mores and mischievously send the tale down unexpected paths. In one instant, Murray arranges a baseball game between the four African-American kids whose mom he lives with (they call him Uncle Mo) and Avigal’s Hasidic brood. In another, Bob Balaban as his lay lawyer, Sol, represents him before a stern tribunal of Orthodox rabbis.
It’s nuttily engaging. Inescapable, though, are nagging questions about Mr. Allen’s real-life fatherhood. They can’t help but speculate motives, peek around the film’s corners and draw parallels…engendering a whole other contemplation. We wonder if there are clues: intentional, Freudian, confessional or absolvent. That’s human nature. We’d like our hero to be a shining example of virtue, even if he’s a pimp or a “Fading Gigolo.”
“Fading Gigolo,” rated R, is a Millennium Entertainment release directed by John Turturro and stars John Turturro, Woody Allen and Vanessa Paradis. Running time: 90 minutes