Have you ever seen a movie that had another, better movie struggling to emerge from inside it like the Alien busting out of John Hurt? Fading Gigolo is that film. For most of its running time, the fifth directorial effort from John Turturro feels like a self-conscious, mildly amusing effort to draw comedy from an unlikely premise. Then something happens — specifically, Vanessa Paradis appears — and the film briefly becomes surprisingly affecting before subsiding into forgettability again.
Let's back up. The unlikely premise is that cash-strapped former bookstore owner Murray — Woody Allen as a down-market version of himself — proposes to pimp out his friend Fioravante (Turturro) to older ladies seeking a discreet gentleman for amorous adventures. Being equally hard up, Fioravante gamely agrees, though he acknowledges he's not Hollywood stud material. His real-guy looks, courtly manners and quiet attentiveness turn out to charm wealthy clients played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara, setting him and Murray on the road to a modestly lucrative side career.
If we suspend our disbelief, there's potential in this scenario. Turturro plays Fioravante as one of those people who serve as meditative mirrors for others' neuroses — he whores like a shrink — so his encounters give us a chance to peer into the psyches of lonely, unfulfilled urbanites.
But Turturro's script never brings the clients' characters into convincing focus. The one woman who does make an impact doesn't seem to fit here at all: Paradis plays Avigal, a Hasidic widow in Williamsburg who Murray decides could benefit from Fioravante's services. He coaxes her to Manhattan to see his favorite "massage therapist."
This bizarre decision generates a silly subplot in which a stalwart member of the Hasidic neighborhood watch (Liev Schreiber) plants himself on Murray's tail, eventually precipitating a showdown involving a panel of rabbis. Allen's familiar tics and one-liners are all on display in these scenes capitalizing on his utter lack of badassness, but they don't exactly break new comic ground.
Instead, the strength of Fading Gigolo lies in the brief, laconic drama that plays out between Fioravante and Avigal. Paradis plays the widow as a deeply sad woman whose air of untouchable dignity gives her a paradoxical allure; in the reluctant gigolo, she finds a kindred spirit.
Turturro has given Fading Gigolo a uniform stylistic sheen reminiscent of Allen's films: This is a New York of falling leaves, brownstones, autumn light and wistful or sprightly jazz. The images carry a musty perfume of days gone by, like the film's jokes. (When Murray and Fioravante try to come up with "pimp names," for instance, their riffing has no comic juice, like they can barely be bothered to register the crude contemporary world outside their bubble.) Only in the scenes between Fioravante and Avigal does the film find a pace of its own, becoming a story about two private people tentatively seeking connection.
Those passages have the emotional depth we tend to find these days mainly in foreign dramas, whose directors are less likely to feel the need to rush their plots along or to contort human variety into clichés. Too bad almost everything else in Fading Gigolo is a cliché — except for the protagonist, who's more of a cipher. While Turturro gives Fioravante a compelling presence, we never learn much about his motivations.
It's not a terrible film, just one that plays better as clickbait ("Woody Allen as a pimp!") than on screen. In sneaking in a more substantial side plot, perhaps Turturro was aiming for a bait-and-switch. What he achieved was a middling film with a few scenes that won't fade rapidly from memory.