John Turturro is an interesting test case for the theory that all actors really want to direct.
The award-winning character actor is beloved by film geeks for his work with indie stalwarts such as the Coen brothers (Miller's Crossing). Meanwhile, he pays the bills by appearing in more commercial fare such as the Transformers franchise. But who could have guessed that he pictured himself more as the romantic leading man type?
In FADING GIGOLO, Turturro stars as Fioravante, a florist living hand-to-mouth in New York City. While helping his friend Murray (Woody Allen) box up his failed bookstore, he learns about two beautiful women who are interested in finding a man to complete their threesome fantasy; naturally, Murray has recommended Fioravante for the job. The two men quickly fall into a scheme in which the older man acts as the pimp, procuring clients for his burgeoning prostitute buddy.
As the writer as well as the director, Turturro wastes no opportunity to use the film as wish-fulfillment fodder. When his first customer (Sharon Stone) begins to have second thoughts as she realizes what's about to happen, he calms her by dancing with her, despite her protests. He brings a young widow (French actress Vanessa Paradis) to tears merely by placing his hands on her back and lightly rubbing her body. The only thing that catches our hero off guard is when a beautiful client (Modern Family's Sofia Vergara) brings up the idea of using a strap-on dildo on him—because who would think that someone working as an escort would ever be asked to fulfill a kinky fantasy?
The casting of Allen presents its own set of problems. Even if you're still able to appreciate the man's work after the resurgence of child-abuse allegations against him, he's just not very good in this film. To be fair, Allen has always been much better when he's working with his own material, but here, the old comedian is stuck with a dog of a character that anyone would have trouble making interesting. His relationship with a younger African-American woman is plied for cheap—even offensive—laughs provided by her kids, who blurt out "I have lice" or "My butt hurts!" at random times.
The most positive thing that can be said for Fading Gigolo is that the cast is made up predominantly of talented actresses, doing the best they can with the material they've been given. Paradis, better known in the States as the former Mrs. Johnny Depp, exudes quiet grace as a Jewish widow driven by religious guilt and prolonged mourning to refrain from touching another person in the years following her husband's death.
And please take a moment to say a silent prayer for Stone, one of Hollywood's most underrated talents. Her performance here is spectacular, but if this is the best role an actress her age can land, every "America's Sweetheart" working today should quit while they're ahead.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Limp pimp."