Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fading Gigolo: Is it a Vanity Project?

Why would a filmmaker depict himself as a whore, or a 'ho,' as it is expressed in Fading Gigolo, a movie which I found on Netflix? John Turturro, a plausibly good-looking actor in his mid-fifties, wrote and directed a film in which he plays a guy who turns to prostitution when times get tough. Is this some vanity project so Turturro can show the world he's still got the goods? Or does it take a lot of humility to cast yourself in a role that is universally despised and abused?

Turturro plays Fioravante, something like "forward flower" or "flower first" in Italian, and he runs a floundering flower shop. Symbolism alert! What do flowers stand for?

John Turturro as Fioravante, florist and gigolo
in his own movie Fading Gigolo.
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Turturro plays the part with maximum restraint; he seems almost wooden. Partly this has to do with portraying the strong and silent stereotype, but partly it is a sort of modesty. He doesn't show off. He doesn't flirt. He doesn't fast-talk. A few shots show off his firm physique, but only distantly, romantically. He has just enough charm to be convincing. And what form does his charm take? He listens; he tunes in; he adapts to his customer's needs, like any good hooker.

Turturro cast his buddy, Woody Allen, in the role of Fioravante's pimp, Murray. After his bookstore goes bust, Murray gets the idea of turning his old pal into a gigolo. This is the perfect role for Allen: Murray is greedy and manipulative, yet he is philosophical, caring, and strangely tender. Allen flows from wisecracks to phobias, and on to gentle coaching and nurturing, so naturally that he seems to be making his lines up as he goes along; he appears to be the character he is portraying. And maybe he is. You could say that as a filmmaker, Allen pimps out the actors he likes, nurtures their talent for the sake of his own gain.

Woody Allen as Murray, pimp, buddy, coach
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The first client Murray scores for Fioravante is a licentious and luscious dermatologist, Dr. Parker, played lustily by Sharon Stone. These two have extended scenes of sexual interaction.  After that, Turturro makes very quick work of the sex part of this sex farce. With a handful of quick vignettes, Turturro establishes that Murray is avid and adept at soliciting clients, that Fioravante is up to the challenge, and, by the way, that the flower shop is flourishing as well. Dr. Parker's girlfriend, Selima, played by Sofía Vergara, is even more voluptuous, but her encounter with Fioravante only gets as far as a slinky tango.
Sharon Stone as Dr. Parker and Sofía Vergara as Selima
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And then the story veers in a totally different direction. When the movie turns to the characters' home life, we see that while Fioravante lives alone in a tiny flat, Woody lives with a much younger African-American woman bartender named Othella (Othella?), played with restraint by Jill Scott, and her four children, who call Murray Uncle Mo. What? An old Jewish bookman just happens to live with a black family? No backstory is provided; that's modern life for you.

Murray with Othella's four children
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One of those children (who happens to wear glasses just like Woody's) reveals that his head itches and he thinks he has lice, again. To get the lice treated, Murray shepherds all four children from Manhattan over to Brooklyn to visit the lice lady. I thought this was an arbitrary plot development, but internet research reveals that some Orthodox women specialize in lice treatment, sometimes known as nit-picking.

The lice lady, Avigal, played delicately by French pop singer and actress Vanessa Paradis, is the widow of a rabbi of the Hasidic sect. She is the total opposite of the sensual Dr. Parker. She lives under the strict customs for widows. Her hair is always covered, she wears black, she is devout. She is the mother of six children, but she lives in a private bubble of sorrow.

Venessa Paradis as the lice lady, Avigal
This is an iPad shot off my computer screen
Is she a good prospect for the services of a gigolo? The worst. Does she have a lot of money to throw around? No. Something about her touches Murray. He looks into the depths of her loneliness, and suddenly he wants to change his ho, his creation, into a therapist. He returns to visit her later on his own, and employs infinite tact to suggest that she might look beyond her rabbi in seeking comfort, that she might seek out a healer. Then with the support of a flimsy folding table and a painfully thin yoga mat, Fioravante transforms himself into a massage therapist. When she first visits him, Avigal is so lonely that a mere caress of her bare back brings her to tears. The camera holds on her face while she dissolves into wracking sobs.

And now we have a love story. Once Avigal experiences emotional release, she begins to open up. She even ventures to connect with Fioravante on her own, not for sex, but once for a kosher meal and once for a walk in the park, like a regular romance, with sets and photography straight out of an Impressionist painting. The romance is intercut with gently funny scenes of Woody, that is, Murray, teaching the four black kids and the six Jewish kids to play baseball, taking care to mix the teams.

Why did the filmmaker sandwich these two very different stories together? It enabled him to show women at the opposite ends of the spectrum of sensuality, and thereby to indicate the universal need for passion, for contact, for tenderness—and for understanding—whether or not sex is part of the bargain.

It also enabled him to paint a positive picture of prostitution. Do you have a knee-jerk reaction that whores are damaged and calloused, greedy and manipulative? Do you assume they are beneath respect? Turturro posits that some sex workers are nice people who try to give a little more than sex. Murray coaches Fioravante something like this: "Don't think of it as a commercial venture. These women need to have a boost to their self-esteem. They need to feel good about themselves." Later, Avigal says that Fioravante "brings magic to the lonely."

Fioravante removes Avigal's wig
iPad shot from a computer screen
At first I thought the ending was a disappointing writer's trick. After Avigal decides to accept the attentions of the Hasidic fellow who is in love with her, Fioravante is so hurt that he decides to quit the game. That I would have accepted; it would be predictable: "Once a hooker discovers true love, they cannot go on selling sex." But you know what? Not only would that be trite, but it would present a negative view of prostitution, whereas Turturro wants to show respect for sex workers. So after Murray chats up a very attractive prospective client, Fioravante grins wryly to say that once again he is hooked; he is Murray's ho.

If The Interview is a buddy movie for the meathead mentality, Fading Gigolo may be called a buddy movie for intellectuals. John Turturro created the perfect role for his old buddy Woody Allen, and he made a film that is very much like Allen's work, complete with tribute to New York City, tasteful jazz score, and artfully composed shots. I could just see the two of them strolling around the city together, eating bagels, drinking Grey Goose, and trading funny bits for the script.

Turturro and Allen, buddies
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This is my idea of a great movie. The themes are important but subtly stated. The script and editing are streamlined so that every word and every shot contribute to the whole.  The acting is expert and insightful. The film is beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to. It's humorous, nostalgic, and profound. That's all I ask for.