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There’s an old saying that when it comes to filmmaking success, everything depends on who you know. And obviously John Turturro has met, worked with and befriended his fair share of very powerful people throughout his impressive career on both sides of the lens as not only one of our greatest character actors but a filmmaker in his own right as the director of four acclaimed independent films.
Yet when it came to developing what would become his fifth film Fading Gigolo, the road from idea for finished screenplay did wind up having a lot to do with who Turturro knew – although instead of a studio head or a power player, the man most responsible for getting Gigolo off the ground was none other than his own barber.
Amused by the clever concept that had first been brainstormed as a hypothetical, improvisational joke shared over lunch with a friend, Turturro’s barber later shared the story he’d been told with another filmmaker client of his in the form of Woody Allen who was so intrigued by the promising potential that he contacted Turturro out of the blue to learn more.
Helping Turturro refine the witty pitch into a viable plotline that would eventually find Allen costarring as well, Fading Gigolo began to take shape, evolving from something wholly comedic to a warmhearted, highly personal, moving dramedy that handles the provocative subject matter with the utmost sincerity and maturity.
Caught off guard when his beautiful dermatologist (Sharon Stone) asks her client Murray (Allen) if he knew anyone who would be interested in having a threesome with her and her fiercely independent friend (played by Sofia Vergara), the fast-talking retired rare bookseller decides to pimp out his best friend Fioravante (John Turturro) on the spot.
A part time florist who’s always done well with the ladies – although he’s initially hesitant to become Murray’s ho, curiosity and flattery not to mention the prospect of an impressive payday eventually win him over as Fioravante gives in, making a first “date” appointment to show up for a one-on-one trial with Stone’s even more nervous doctor.
Attempting to play the part, Fioravante shows up with a floral arrangement as if he were there for a real live date before taking the plunge.
Dancing with the lonely women in the daytime, Fioravante’s attentiveness pays off as before long, the sensitive man’s man finds himself in demand as the opportunistic Murray begins cruising yoga classes in Central Park looking for new clients.
Although at first uneasy about taking money from vulnerable women, Murray is quick to tell him isn’t nearly as bad as preying on the misery of others like a bartender since he’s building up the women’s confidence after all.
And using the same sales pitch that describes his friend’s gifts as akin to healing, Murray finds a potential customer in Avigail (Vanessa Paradis), the lonely young widow of a deceased Hasidic Rabbi whose own primal need for intimacy has been ignored for way too long.
Unfortunately the suspicious behavior of Murray arouses the suspicion of Liev Schreiber’s jealous Hasidic community officer who’s spent his entire life pining after his lovely neighbor Avigail and puts their impromptu operation in jeopardy.
Understanding that it would have been both disrespectful and entirely too farfetched to turn the devout Avigail into just another client in need of sexual release, Turturro uses compassion and class onscreen and off by handling their complicated dynamic with sophistication as the lonely mother of six weeps openly as he massages her back, admitting that she hadn’t been touched in years.
Awakening a sensual side of Avigail that we suspect had been dormant long before her husband passed away, Gigolo infuses the second, more emotionally involving half of the film with a tender exploration of how their relationship unexpectedly affects both parties. And at the film continues, it results in a humorously bittersweet yet fitting payoff that invites you to read into the charmingly ambiguous final sequence for yourself.
While it makes the most of its New York setting in some breathtakingly beautiful scenic shots of fall leaves, carousels and bookshelves – by spending so much time in the Hasidic community in addition to giving us the point-of-view of an unexpected middle aged gigolo – there’s also a unique sense of detachment to the work that makes it seem like a foreign film shot on American soil.
And although admittedly you do have to suspend your disbelief regarding the drop-dead beauties to whom Fioravante is pimped out to throughout – all in all it’s rooted in enough reality that the sweet yet sexy infusion of a bedtime fantasy story best begun with the words “Once Upon a Time” still results in a lovely cinematic surprise.
Refreshingly devoid of cynicism, while some filmmakers would’ve approached the topic with a much bleaker worldview of humanity and/or women in general to make a statement on sex and commerce, it’s evident that Turturro’s heart is in the right place from the start.
Feel-good filmmaking that springboards off its inventive premise to truly invest us in the plight of its multiple lonely outsiders, Gigolo evolves into a stylish, well-acted ensemble dramedy the likes of which Turturro would have easily gravitated to as an actor even if it had been helmed by someone else.
And much like the word-of-mouth that helped get the film made offscreen and earned Fioravante clients onscreen, Fading Gigolo is sure to attract an even bigger audience in its spring theatrical release as this delightful Gigolo offers something for everyone.
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