One of the great pleasures of regular moviegoing isn't seeing great films. It's finding the little oddballs, the modest entertainments that miss just as often as they hit but leave you with the feeling that someone poured heart, soul, and a sense of humor into the work at hand. Fading Gigolo, the fifth feature from writer-director — and, of course, actor — John Turturro is one of those pictures, a three-legged cat of a movie that ambles along cheerfully and sweetly, possibly without ever quite knowing where it's going. Still, resolute if somewhat off-kilter, it always keeps moving. And where else are you going to see the très adorable French pop star and actress Vanessa Paradis as a Brooklyn lice-picker?
In Fading Gigolo, set in a vivid and instantly recognizable New York, Woody Allen plays Murray, the owner of a rare-books store who's being forced to close up shop. He needs money: He lives with a woman, played by Tonya Pinkins, who might be a wife, friend, or girlfriend, and is helping to support a family of four kids. (The relationships aren't quite clear, but his benevolence and sense of responsibility are.) As it turns out, Murray's dermatologist has mentioned that she and her girlfriend are interested in setting up a threesome — might he know a suitable, good-looking candidate? (The movie's casual acceptance that dermatologists in New York ask these sorts of questions is part of its intentional, go-for-broke absurdity.) Murray immediately thinks of his friend, Fioravante (Turturro), a part-time florist who's been helping out at the shop. Fioravante at first demurs, but relents because he needs money too — and, as he comes to find out, Murray's "clients" turn out to be sultry hotties played, with gusto, by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara.
Turturro's casting himself as a sex symbol in his own movie is probably intended as a bit of a joke, though it isn't one at all. Turturro's Fioravante is sexy. That has less to do with the specifics of his face — that shy, snaggle-tooth smile, for example — than with his carriage and demeanor, and his casual kindness. Fioravante puts on polished shoes and a dashingly tailored overcoat and steps out on Fred Astaire legs to meet his clients; he's got so much class that he heats up any joint he walks into. It's little wonder that when Murray connects him with a lonely and heartbroken Hasidic widow, Paradis' Avigal, she responds as much to his friendly warmth as to anything so banal as his touch.
For her, of course, that touch is forbidden. Murray meets Avigal when he brings one of his little charges to her home in Williamsburg to be de-loused. (No matter how you feel about Woody Allen, the unmitigated horror that animates his face when he hears the word "lice" is something to behold.) Avigal is observant and chaste, her hair covered by a scarf or wig, her dark dresses and coats reaching safely past her knees. No matter how comically saucy or ribald Fading Gigolo gets, the romantic friendship that blossoms between Avigal and Fioravante is the core, and it's believable in large part because of Paradis' gentle radiance. She's a quietly expressive actress, largely under-appreciated in this country, though not, thank God, by Turturro.
Fading Gigolo is a breeze, enjoyable both for its sweetness and its unapologetic silliness. If you've seen Turturro's 2005 infidelity musical Romance & Cigarettes, you know he has a knack for finding the right song for every occasion, even the zaniest, and he doesn't fail us here. (One of the gems he turns up is the rich, buttery Canadian Sunset, by under-recognized tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons.) Much of Fading Gigolo takes place in Williamsburg, but it's the Williamsburg of payot, not PBR. That in itself is an interesting choice on Turturro's part, one that cuts to the heart and eternal mystery of living in New York.
Because no matter how we residents think we know the city, there's always some corner that has somehow eluded us. For example, in Fading Gigolo, Liev Schreiber shows up in a small but finely wrought performance as a lovesick Hasidic patrolman. His badge and squad car read "Shomrim," an organization of neighborhood watchmen that work in tandem with the NYPD. Perhaps you are aware of this group, but all I could think was, Who knew? When cool young people say, "I live in Brooklyn," or "I'm moving to Brooklyn," neither they nor we necessarily think of this Brooklyn, though it's as much a part of the city as yellow cabs, fire hydrants, and bagels. Fading Gigolo wraps even this semi-hidden New York in its embrace and whirls it around the dance floor. It's a beautiful and quietly vibrant, if cloistered, part of the city, and Turturro and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo (son of Gillo) reveal it to us as if in a whisper. It's as far from a T-shirt with an ironic slogan as you can get.