Fioravante is not, by his own admission, a good-looking man. But in “Fading Gigolo,” a story about a reluctant male escort, he’s played by the tall, angular and quirkily constructed John Turturro, which makes him a statuesque, even striking figure. And the character — a part-time florist who agrees, almost too easily, to pimp himself out to lonely women — also proves to be surprisingly good at his job.
The movie, which the veteran character actor also wrote and directed, sounds like the stuff of comedy. And the presence of Woody Allen, as Fioravante’s nebbish friend and pimp Murray, does signal that it’s okay to laugh. But “Gigolo” offers precious few guffaws, preferring to elicit wry smiles and maybe even wring out a few tears.
Though the movie’s setup is far-fetched, its biggest challenge isn’t plausibility, but moral expediency. Despite Fioravante’s initial qualms about taking on his first client (Sharon Stone) — who happens to be Murray’s gorgeous, sexually frustrated doctor — our hero quickly relents, with minimal discussion of right and wrong. Ostensibly, it’s because he needs the money. But, oddly, Fioravante, who is something of an artistic prodigy when it comes to floral arrangements and whose name suggests the Italian for “forward flower,” works at his day job only two days a week.
But never mind. He’s soon servicing not one but two women (Stone and Sofia Vergara). The broadly directed sex scenes, although mildly funny, are kind of retrograde. “You’re top shelf, hard to reach,” Stone’s character purrs to Fioravante, who has by now adopted the alias Virgil Howard. “That’s what makes you so good.” His encounters with clients are characterized by a taciturn inscrutability that could be read as wisdom or witlessness.
Wait a minute. What these women really want is an uncommunicative lunk who sits there in stony silence? I thought that was the problem with their lousy husbands. In some ways, Turturro’s character reminds me of Chance, the developmentally disabled gardener played by Peter Sellers in “Being There,” whose childlike pronouncements were misinterpreted as profound — and sexy — depth.
But there’s a far more interesting movie taking place alongside this more than slightly silly one. It concerns Fioravante’s completely nonsexual relationship with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a grieving orthodox Jewish widow for whom he provides amateur back rubs and positive affirmations. While Fioravante’s falling for Avigal, she’s actually opening up, like a flower, to the realization that she deserves love — only not from him. Liev Schreiber plays her suitor, Dovi, a member of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community crime patrol, called the Shomrim.
As a filmmaker, Turturro evokes a sense of this community that’s surprisingly nuanced and rich. What’s more, the love triangle of Fioravante, Avigal and Dovi makes for a far more compelling dynamic than the broad sex farce. A wacky subplot involving Murray’s detention by the Shomrim, and subsequent trial for moral turpitude in front of a panel of rabbis, only further muddies the movie’s already mixed-up tonal waters.
There’s a really thoughtful film buried in here somewhere, and it has to do with people struggling to live side by side in the big city. Orthodox and assimilated Jews, Italians and blacks — represented by the much younger African American woman (Tonya Pinkins) and her four cute sons with whom Murray lives — all of these groups keep bumping up against each other, sometimes painfully, sometimes poignantly, in ways that highlight our similarities, and our common needs more than our differences.
“Fading Gigolo” isn’t really a sex comedy at all. Its message, more hopeful than hopeless, could be more sharply articulated, and it isn’t exactly new. But despite the fact that it has been said before, it’s still worth repeating: Only connect.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and sex scenes. 90 minutes.