There are strange movies, and then there are movies that feature Vanessa Paradis as a Hasidic widow and Liev Schreiber as a lovelorn Satmar patrolman. That doesn’t even address the central casting gambit in Fading Gigolo, which stars John Turturro, who also wrote and directed, as a florist moonlighting as a gigolo. When bookstore owner Murray (Woody Allen) learns his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) and her friend (Sofía Vergara) are considering a ménage à trois—and what doctor wouldn’t volunteer that information?—he brings the idea to the pal he inexplicably sees as the lover of their dreams. Convincing Turturro’s Fioravante that he’s at least as big a draw as Mick Jagger, Murray soon arranges an introduction. Before long, the two of them are a team, providing a service to New York’s wealthiest women, who marvel at Fioravante’s chivalric bedside manner. “It’s like candy, having sex with you,” Stone’s character exclaims. “You have one piece and you always want another.”
If that description makes Fading Gigolo sound insufferably macho and self-involved, the movie goes so far into its stylized, alternative-universe NYC that it becomes oddly endearing. The film’s Brooklyn is a utopia of porous ethnic neighborhoods and generalized goodwill. The unusual casting of Allen outside of one of his own movies isn’t as far-fetched as early “Allen as pimp” descriptions made it sound; he’s a hapless, amateur pimp, making a foray into a world he doesn’t understand—territory Allen himself covered in Mighty Aphrodite. While Fading Gigolo goes heavy on one-liners early on (“Are you on drugs?” Fioravante asks Murray. “Apart from my Zoloft, no!” he replies), the emphasis quickly shifts to Turturro’s offbeat take on romance, helped along by jazzy scoring and a nostalgic, brightly hued palette. The closest the film gets to eroticism is a moment when Paradis teaches Fioravante how to carve the meat off a kosher fish.
The tonal mishmash backfires as often as it disarms; a scene in which Murray, represented by lawyer Bob Balaban, is called before a council of Orthodox rabbis goes so broad as to become offensive. But the movie mostly aspires to a low-key tenderness; fundamentally, it’s about the need for companionship and the agony of loneliness. Fading Gigolo is not an entirely coherent film. It is, for the right and wrong reasons, a distinctive and memorable one.