Structuring an entire film around the exploits of an elderly pimp and his middle-aged prostitute could conceivably make for an enjoyably vulgar sex farce, provided, that is, the filmmakers were committed to milking the scenario for all it’s worth. But writer-director-star John Turturro has something ostensibly more mature in mind with Fading Gigolo, daring to inject a sense of reflective melancholy into the material in order to offset the yuks. Unfortunately, the film’s strained pretensions only serve to highlight its insults and dramatic shortcomings.
In Fading Gigolo, women come in one of two regressive types: sex-crazed fiends, from Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) to her friend Selima (Sofía Vergara), or meek, mousy widows like Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), who cries upon feeling a man’s hands on her bare back because she hasn’t been touched like that since her husband died. None of these women are given any inner life outside of their function as catalysts for actions taken by the two main male characters; even when Avigal finally takes control of her own agency in a climactic scene involving a makeshift Hasidic court, it’s only as the result of a male’s tender touch.
But then, the male characters aren’t richly imagined either. Turturro’s titular gigolo, Fioravante, is given one quirk—the fact that he works at a flower shop—to suggest the sensitive soul behind the quietly stoic exterior. And his pimp, the elderly bookstore owner Murray, is played by Woody Allen as a repository of familiar Allen shtick, broad ethnic humor and all—with the broadness buttressed by the caricatures that make up the supporting cast. Turturro doesn’t even establish these two men as convincing individuals before diving into his plot; worse, these glorified archetypes never acquire any depth as the film goes along. The question of why one should actually work up any emotional investment in what happens to these people is never really answered, much less asked in the first place.
All the energy Turturro should have spent filling in his characters appears to have been lavished on the film’s melancholic tone. The contrast between the 8mm home-movie footage that opens the film and the subsequent scene showing Murray’s bookstore in its final throes sets the thematic stage: Fading Gigolo is intended to be as much about aging as it is about love and sex. Maybe that’s why the film often feels like a sex farce played at half-speed, with the more measured pace evoking a sense of pained autumnal reflection. But the weighty solemnity isn’t earned by the subject matter, especially with characters who don’t seem at all capable of the kind of introspection that might make the film feel as poignant as Turturro clearly wants it to be.