Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fading Gigolo

FADING GIGOLO        B-         
USA  (90 mi)  2013  d:  John Turturro

While this is a John Turturro film, one that he writes and directs, it’s also one of the few appearances by Woody Allen in a film someone else directs, where one gets the distinct feeling that Woody Allen was the ghost writer behind the project, as so much behind his screen character feels tailor made for his early kind of Jewish guilt shtick humor, where there’s even a Hasidic neighborhood patrol watch hauling his ass in before the learned rabbi’s in a kind of mock trial, something one might imagine happens before gaining admittance to heaven, a Last Judgment where you have to answer to a panel of questioning rabbi’s.  While this is meant to be all in good fun, the sexual tone is problematic when it involves Woody Allen, now age 78, but with a history of child sex abuse allegations that have never gone away, but more importantly, in 1997 after a difficult separation from Mia Farrow, he married one of his own adopted foster children who is 35 years younger than he is, which reeks in the eyes of the public, making him guilty of some Kafkaesque morals charge, even if none actually exists, where at the very least, it still makes people feel uncomfortable.  It’s impossible not to think of these issues when thinking of Woody Allen, which are only exacerbated when his movies make fun of sex, as they have always done from the beginning of his career.  More than anything else, the premise of the movie sends out flares of bad taste warnings bordering on the ridiculous, as an aging Woody Allen as Murray Schwarz, a rare bookstore owner going out of business, decides he can earn some extra cash by pimping out his best friend Fioravante (John Turturro), a florist who works part-time in a flower store.   While Turturro is never anything less than a gentleman, maintaining a sense of decency and a bit of flair throughout, the same cannot be said for Allen, who’s something of a sleazy instigator here, continually getting into other people’s business.  Nonetheless, the film does have its charms, not the least of which is the wall-to-wall 50’s jazz soundtrack that mostly features the lush, sensuous tones of alto saxophonist Gene Ammons, a local Chicago jazz giant. 

Despite one’s initial reservations with the premise, where it’s hard to imagine Woody Allen at near 80 pimping out his friends, it’s a strange mixture of modern era fantasy and old world reality, where despite the sex comedy aspects, this is more of an old-fashioned love story.  From the outset, Murray has a proposition for his friend, claiming his dermatologist Dr. Parker, none other than Sharon Stone (Only in Hollywood can you still make a living off of one’s image as a sex symbol some twenty years earlier, complete with visual reference to 1992’s BASIC INSTINCT), suggested to him supposedly out of the blue that she was interested in an upscale menage-a-trois with her girlfriend, where Murray immediately thought of Fioravante as his Don Juan to fill the void.  While he had some initial reservations on his own, the incentive of $1000 in cash was too much to resist, making this not only a sex farce, but a capitalist fantasy as well in an era of economic deprivation, where Murray would get a cut acting as his opportunistic manager sending clients his way, a notion that also brings to mind Woody Allen’s own turn as manager extraordinaire in Broadway Danny Rose (1984).  Even the musical selection of Dean Martin’s version of “Sway” Dean Martin - Sway ^_^ - YouTube (2:43) has the mocking tone of a “Dino Latino” heartthrob.  Parker decides to sample the merchandise first, just to get a taste, and by all accounts it’s a great success, with the men seen divvying up the generous tip afterwards, where he also has the vivacious girlfriend Selima (Sofía Vergara) chomping at the bit.  While this is going on, we see Murray’s home life, a crazy reference to Mia Farrow’s horde of adopted children, as he’s living with a black wife, Tonya Pinkins as Othella, and three black sons, one of whom has lice in his afro hair.   This calls for the expertise of a neighborhood lice specialist, Vanessa Paradis as Avigail, a Hasidic widow with six kids of her own whose gentle prowess with hair belies her own personal need for a spiritual healer, where Murray suggests sometimes you have to go “beyond the rabbi,” of course, introducing her to his friend Fioravante, whose services to aid the distressed can be obtained for a small fee.

The mixing of the two ethnic cultures, black and Hasidic Jewish, especially through the innocence of Murray and Avigail’s kids, where there’s a pronounced lack of athletic coordination along with those twisted Payot curls, but watching them try to play baseball in the park is hilarious, as the orthodox Hasidic culture is such an unusual target for humor, made even more ridiculous by the nebbish Woody Allen acting as our guide through this cultural mishmash of opposite ethnic groups.  Adding to this element of mystery is the presence of Liev Schreiber as Dovi, a Hasidic Shomrim neighborhood watch guard, an interesting phenomenon that resembles the Guardian Angels in urban environments, as both are civilian watch groups in their neighborhoods as a supplement to the police force.  Dovi has had a thing for Avigail since childhood days, and now that she’s been a grieving widow for two years, he thinks it’s about time to make his move, awkwardly meeting her on the street and confessing his undying love.  Dovi grows suspicious when she continually avoids him, but she’s struck with Fioravante fever, where she plays such a gentle spirit that her fragility becomes the film’s guiding light.  It’s quite a contrast to the crassness of the goings-on between Stone and Vergara, but the unique tenderness of Paradis leaves her imprint on this picture, as she tries to remain true to her faith, yet she comes from an over-controlling, orthodox Hasidic community where women are expected to behave as if we are still in the Stone Age.  Perhaps the funniest scene in the film is when Murray goes out for a loaf of bread but is surrounded by the Hasidic mafia and kidnapped, thrown into the back of a van, where he is hauled before a sacred tribunal of ultra-conservative Hasidic rabbi’s that resembles Peter Lorre’s trial in M (1931), where this surreal gathering of the morality police question the authenticity of his Jewishness, which is something that has always plagued Allen, as it’s a constant point of reference in his own existential evolution throughout his entire career.  The movie is a comedy of errors, an exaggerated farce that expresses the particular constraints of faith and how it often interferes with one’s best interests, making it especially difficult developing relations with the opposite sex.  While this is unusual territory for a movie, Paradis is especially convincing as a woman whose emotional core remains unreachable, even to herself since the death of her husband, still feeling frozen in time, where the first signs of thaw are painfully difficult to navigate, offering rare insight in a movie that otherwise treats women as caricatures of Hollywood sex objects.    

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