A few years ago, John Turturro made a documentary about the musical culture of Naples. The songs it featured were often fiery, sometimes comical, and almost always about love, sex and money. One, called "Dove Sta Zaza", tells of a man searching for his vanished lover. It combined romance… and expediency. The lyric had the man calling to his lover, "Where are you, I need to find you – but if I can't have you, I'll have your sister instead."
The same mix of yearning and opportunism characterises Fading Gigolo, the enjoyable new film that Turturro has written, directed and stars in. The setting isn't Naples. It is the heart of New York City – and much of the action plays out in a Brooklyn Hasidic community. The characters, though, are driven by the same high and low passions as those described in the Neapolitan songs that Turturro so cherishes.
Given Woody Allen's recent travails in the media, it is intriguing to see him cast here as a bookseller who combines bibliophilia with pimping – and who, at one stage, is brought to trial to answer for his sleazy behaviour.
As the film begins, Murray (Allen) has fallen on hard times. "Only rare people buy rare books," he laments as he prepares to sell the family bookshop. He needs alternative revenue streams. His friend Fioravante (Turturro) is a part-time florist and plumber struggling to pay his rent and likewise in dire need of money. Murray knows a dermatologist, Dr Parker (Sharon Stone), looking for a man to take part in a ménage à trois with her and her gorgeous friend Selima (Sofia Vergara). Murray thinks Fioravante could be just the man they need.
Such a plot line suggests exploitation fodder at its most absurd. In fact, Fading Gigolo is a deceptively sweet-natured and gentle film that takes its mood from its own jazzy soundtrack. Allen is very funny, playing yet another variation on the permanently harassed, permanently wisecracking New Yorker he has portrayed so many times in his own films. Counting his money, trying ineptly to negotiate himself a better split with Fioravante, he is as hapless as Broadway Danny Rose. We hear him musing on mortality, just as he does in his own films. He is even given the chance to indulge in the type of slapstick that characterised his early movies, such as Take the Money and Run and Sleeper. (At one stage, we see him flinging his groceries away as he tries to flee the Hasidic priests who want him to answer for his actions.)
Turturro's trick is to take stereotypical characters and to portray them in an offbeat and surprising way. For example, Stone's Dr Parker shapes up early on like an older version of the femme fatale she played in Basic Instinct: a sexually voracious career woman who intimidates Turturro's would-be gigolo. (There is even a Paul Verhoeven-style shot of him seen through her legs.) In fact, Dr Parker is as nervous as he is and the scenes between them have a comic undertow.
The film continually defies our expectations. Now well into his 50s, Turturro is self-evidently not obvious, Richard Gere-like gigolo-material. After all, this is the actor who played Barton Fink. "I am not a handsome man," his character protests when Murray first suggests making him a "ho". The closest to a gigolo in his earlier filmography is his narcissistic, over-dressed bowler in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski – but he was hamming it up there. In Fading Gigolo, he is in a far more subtle groove.
One way he justifies selling his body is that he is bringing "magic to the lonely". There is a surprising tenderness to his scenes with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the lonely Hasidic Jewish widow first seen trying to remove the lice from the heads of some African-American kids. She is not supposed to bare her hair or even to read books.
The Hasidic community – in particular the jealous neighbourhood police officer Dovi (Liev Schreiber) – follow her every move. Fioravante treats her with a hesitant kindness and soon becomes besotted by her. Paradis, who underplays beautifully, still has that detached, mysterious quality she showed all those years ago as a teenage actor in Jean-Claude Brisseau's Noce Blanche (1989).
Fading Gigolo is aimed at an older audience – the "grey pound" cinemagoers who flocked to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet. It has a rude energy that such films lack. It deals frankly, albeit humorously, with its characters' sex lives and is honest about their venality.
One challenge Turturro can never quite overcome is the absurdity of the premise. It is hard to accept the idea of the elderly owner of the antiquarian bookshop becoming a pimp or the chic and glamorous Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara having to pay a plumber for sexual services. The screenplay lapses occasionally into crudity. Murray has to choose his own porn name and sure enough opts for the Boogie Nights-style "Bongo". Wild improbabilities that wouldn't matter much in a Naples folk song about forbidden love seem very jarring in a Brooklyn-set feature film.
Certain elements in Turturro's screenplay are simply baffling. Murray's domestic life is never properly explained. We are not told whether he is married to the African-American woman (Jill Scott) with whom he shares a small apartment. Nor is his relationship to her children clear – is he their dad, their step-dad or simply a family friend? Turturro doesn't elucidate. If Fioravante really is the charmer that Murray believes he is, why does he need his friend to arrange dates and do his talking for him?
Fading Gigolo is best enjoyed if you don't pay too much attention to its story's construction. Taken as a whimsical but fiery romantic comedy, it has easily enough charm to get away with its own idiosyncrasies.