When John Turturro decided to name his film Fading Gigolo, he must have had in mind a curious response the title would get. After all, it is not everyday that a serious film — even though it’s funny, the tone is still serious, you get the drift — is named such. Ironically, what the film eventually ends up evoking is a more measured response, almost akin to an assent, to the other half of the name: fading.
To make a salacious attempt at humour without going overboard, Turturro’s film takes refuge in the very first word uttered: ménage à trois. Fioravante (Turturro) is a florist, who has an older, avuncular friend in Murray (Woody Allen), a bookstore owner of rare books, closing his shop for good. Faced with an intermediate crisis of sorts, Murray tells Fioravante that in a conversation with his dermatologist who he had gone to earlier in the day (“Nothing serious, though,” he tells you), she had mentioned something very interesting. The dermatologist — Sharon Stone as Dr Parker — had told him that she and her girlfriend were thinking of a ménage à trois, and he had said that he might know someone for that. The someone, as he lets out gently, is Fioravante.
Now, a line like that can only be made to sound temperate by Woody Allen playing what only he can play. In that respect, Fading Gigolo does him justice. As the film plays out, you realise that it is Allen who does more justice to it than it does to him. That has to be a first, where Allen the actor looks like he’s enjoying himself even though he’s not the one directing the show. Turturro, for his part, is comfortable wearing the skin of a florist with gentile hands — the pun is intended here. He is a good listener, who makes the lonely feel, for a lack of better word, full.
The film is a feel-good comedy with a hint of romance, but it never exactly fulfills that promise. In a way, it’s like a meal that starts with a steak only to end with a shitake mushroom soup. The ‘gigolo’ bit can be glossed over for its finer parts, but the heartfelt nice-man scenes do not feel as good as the funny one-liners that Allen gets to deliver.
Pulling away from the central story of the two women (Stone and Sofia Vergara) and the florist is a more fundamental track of a rabbi’s widow. Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) meets Fioravante through Murray, who by now has become the florist’s pimp for all purposes. As the woman who rarely steps out of her Jewish borough (“I go to Queens to visit my husband’s grave sometimes”), meeting Fioravante makes her aware of her loneliness. It also makes him aware of his love for her.
It’s a different matter that this love takes no flight; the journey could have been as pleasantful. The scene where Avigal shows Fioravante how to carve a fish is almost filled with hope, almost because the joy is calibrated, one feels, to a fault. This is where the director’s serious hand lingers far too long. He could have surrendered to the fullness of joy; instead, he chooses to closet it in feelings that take time to understand. One has to be mellow of experience, if not age, to get the film’s nicety.
There are, of course, the Manhattan and Brooklyn scenes without which it is difficult to imagine a Woody Allen world. The same sentiments affect Turturro’s New York. Hidden in the crevices of its old buildings lies the soul of a city and Turturro chooses to tell its story through the “oldest profession in the world”. How you choose to look at it is entirely up to you, but the laughs could have been louder and lust could have been less blasé. That is despite the ménage à trois with two stunning women.