John Turturro returns to writing and directing — and being in better movies than those Transformers things — with Fading Gigolo, a funny and affectionate movie that might just be the best Woody Allen movie Woody Allen never made. I don’t just mean in the Woody Allen scenes either. The whole slightly bittersweet tone of the film — not to mention its musical choices — could easily pass for a Woody Allen picture. Whether that’s deliberate or not, I have no idea, but it’s certainly there. Similarly, I don’t know if Allen wrote, or at least Allenized, his own dialogue, but if he didn’t, Turturro has an amazing grasp of not just the Allen persona but the cadence of his speech. Turturro’s major inspiration, and the thing that makes Fading Gigolo rather special, was teaming himself with Allen. They are a screen team made in heaven — and one that makes the film’s central premise believable enough to work. It’s a premise that needs help in the believability department.
When the film opens, part-time florist Fioravante (Turturro) is helping his old friend Murray (Allen) pack up and close down Murray’s no longer viable book store. Modern times and New York expenses have caught up with the family business of rare books. But while they’re in the process of doing this, Murray tells Fioravante about a conversation with his dermatologist in which she expressed an interest in having a ménage à trois with her adventurous girlfriend and wondered if Murray knew anyone who might be interested in filling the man’s role — for a $1000 fee. In a basically preposterous move, Murray has suggested the 56-year-old Fioravante, not in the least because Murray envisions getting a cut as pimp. No one finds it more preposterous than Fioravante, but his own poverty and Murray’s insistence that he has sex appeal, causes him to give in. Of course, it turns out that Fioravante (taking the Dante-esque name of Virgil in his new incarnation) is a big hit with the ladies, and he and Murray are soon rolling in money.
The situation becomes complicated when Murray decides to add Avigal (Valerie Paradis, Heartbreakers), the mournful widow of an important Hasidic rabbi, to their client list — not for sex, mind you, but for therapeutic massage. The problem is that the relationship between Fioravante and Avigal, while never really sexual, becomes emotional. In turn, this arrangement draws the attention of Dovi (Liev Schreiber), who has been hopelessly in love with Avigal for years. That he’s also an officer in some kind of Hasidic morality patrol gives Dovi the ability to “legitimately” investigate the situation. In this stretch, Turturro manages to effectively blend a Woody Allen comedy with a dramatically viable story in a very pleasing manner. (Bringing in Bob Balaban as Murray’s lawyer was a masterstroke, except that it makes you wish he and Allen had more footage together.) What Turturro cannot do, it seems, is bring about a satisfying — or believable — resolution to the Avigal storyline, and this does hurt the movie.
Even with the notable downside of an unsatisfying ending to a major part of the story, there is so much about Fading Gigolo to like — maybe even love — that I can’t help but forgive it. This, after all, is a movie in which Sharon Stone gives a nuanced, even touching, performance. It’s also one where Sofia Vergara isn’t a cartoonish sex joke with a double-D punchline. There are other high points — including a strong sense of place — but the major accomplishment lies in the teaming of Turturro and Allen. That alone affords us a little slice of moviemaking nirvana. Plus, it allows, or maybe inspires, the kind of ambiguously hopeful ending that we got 35 years ago in Allen’s Manhattan, but in another, equally blissful, key. Rated R for some sexual content, language and brief nudity.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre.