When you think of John Turturro, the words “sex symbol” don’t exactly spring to mind. The long-established character actor and occasional director has played many things since showing up onscreen in the mid-’80s — crazy, kind, violent, freakish, tender — but “hot” hasn’t been among them. I guess if anyone was going to reveal that side of Turturro it would have to be Turturro, so here’s “Fading Gigolo,” a lovely, minor-key Manhattan absurdity in which the writer-director-star is effortlessly convincing and elegantly touching as a courtly schmo who turns to the sex trade when the economy bottoms out.
The filmmaker knows that the city is full of men like the character he plays, Fioravante. They’re hard-working, middle-age loners who fill the coffee cups and drive the cabs and roll the book stalls back in for the night. They’re getting priced out of 21st-century Manhattan, though, a fact that Fioravante’s face registers with silent grief. Turturro’s New York is right next door to Woody Allen’s, it seems — so close that Allen drops in to play Murray Schwartz, owner of the rare book shop where the hero works when he’s not at his second job arranging flowers.
Rents are rising, the book shop is closing, and noodgy Murray has an idea. His dermatologist, a ritzy uptown sort played by a game Sharon Stone, is looking for a stud for hire. Murray suggests Fioravante, who’s initially appalled. “I am not a beautiful man,” he protests, to which Murray replies, “You have a certain quality.” The thing is, he’s right. When Fioravante meets the good doctor, she’s an awkward wreck and he’s calm, curious, poised, gentle. He takes charge, but with respect. He has a stillness that’s attractive. The kid’s a natural.
What could be a silly-smutty sex comedy manages to stay just on the right side of ridiculous, thanks to Turturro’s graceful performance, indulgent turns by the rest of the cast, and a lot of impeccable, if generic, jazz on the soundtrack. The onscreen flesh is minimal; what grounds the movie is its understanding of loneliness, urban jungle division. As the title implies, “Fading Gigolo” presents its hero’s new career as an unexpected swan song before the city shuts out men like him for good. Fioravante’s opposite number is Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a widow in Hasidic Williamsburg whose massage appointment turns out to be more about emotional than sexual release. The film turns the corner into a genuinely affecting love story between two quiet souls. Paradis, for her part, delivers a richer, more humane performance than anything her ex, Johnny Depp, has done in years.
Circling around these two terse people are a chorus of motormouths and kibitzers: Sofia Vergara as a friend of Stone’s who wants to get in on the action, Tonya Pinkins as Murray’s quasi-girlfriend with a quartet of wise-mouthed little kids, Liev Schrieber as the local Orthodox cop pining with unrequited affection for Avigal, Bob Balaban as Murray’s lawyer, called in to represent his client — now going by the nom du pimp “Dan Bongo” — before a deliriously nutty rabbinical counsel.
Some of the press for “Fading Gigolo” has emphasized Allen’s presence over Turturro’s, and that’s a mistake. Woody delivers one of his more confident acting jobs, and he’s very funny provided you’re able to find him funny after the media storms of the past few months. (If it bothers you, don’t see the movie. You’d be missing a good one, though.) In the end, he’s less Jeff to Turturro’s Mutt than Sancho Panza to the taller man’s Quixote. A comedy shot through with melancholy, “Fading Gigolo” isn’t really about the things we do in bed. It’s about the prisons we build in our heads and the thrill of opening the cell doors to see who’s out there.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.