One of My Favorite Films: Fading Gigolo

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There are certain books I re-read from year to year, always finding something new in them, and there are a handful of films that fall into that category too. One of them is writer, director and actor John Turturro’s 2014 elegiac gem, Fading Gigolo. It’s a film that surprised me: When I saw Woody Allen’s face next to Turturro’s on the movie poster, I assumed it was his film and would thus be marked by his neurotic and slightly acerbic wit. And indeed, some of Allen’s trademark humor finds its way to Fading Gigolo, and one could say there’s a lot of Allen in this film, period, because Turturro quite obviously paid homage to him. The beauty of New York City (here caught in the dappled shade and golden glow of autumn, which seems to triple its beauty); the sweetly soft and melancholic jazz score; the story itself, which acknowledges the bittersweetness of life’s relationships (its inevitable losses, deeply felt yet lightened by the possibility of new beginnings); and yes, the humor, the sense of absurd comedy that plays out in the daily lives of humans: all of these Woody-esque elements are in Fading Gigolo, though under Turturro’s vision and lens they are softened, achieving a subtlety that has the effect of making the viewer feel he is watching a Woody Allen film through a veil. Whereas the humor in a Woody Allen film can sometimes feel jarring or tangential to the point that it almost seems to occupy its own separate room in the story, here it is toned down in a way that recalls Allen’s more sublime films like Midnight in Paris or Hannah and Her Sisters. Though understated, Turturro very capably evokes the famous director’s offbeat brand of storytelling: at its heart, Fading Gigolo is a story about human connection, arrived at by observing the various ways a person can feel lonely and through a flow of events that are, by turns, comic, tender, sad, and romantically sweet.

Woody Allen’s character Murray is the instigator of the story. Murray is the aging owner of a rare-books bookstore in Manhattan, started by his grandfather, that is no longer doing enough business to keep it afloat, and is lamenting this fact to long-time employee and friend Fioravante (John Turturro) in the film’s opening scene, as the two men empty shelves in preparation for its closing. Murray then tells Fioravante about a conversation he had with his dermatologist earlier in the day. While visiting her office for a procedure, the dermatologist confided to him that she and a girlfriend planned to pursue something they’d never done before—a ménage a trois—and she wondered if he might know someone willing to help them out with that fantasy, a man they could trust. Murray said he did know someone who would do it—for a thousand dollars. The person he had in mind is Fioravante, he tells his friend. Fioravante looks at him in surprise but Murray is serious and brings up the fact that Fioravante is living hand-to-mouth with his part-time jobs at a flower shop and the now-closed bookstore. While admitting this to be true, Fioravante isn’t interested. “You need a young, slick, leading-man type,” he tells Murray a day later at the florist shop, where he’s carefully potting an orchid when Murray shows up to resume the discussion, spurred by the fact that the dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), has already phoned him again. “I’m not a beautiful man,” Fioravante protests, but Murray is relentless in trying to convince him that he’s perfect for the job.

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Naturally, Murray is right. When Fioravante finally agrees to show up at Dr. Parker’s wealthy address for a one-on-one tryst (because she wants to see what she thinks of him first), he does so with impeccable grooming, smooth styling, and something else that’s hinted at in a gift he brings her. The gift is a small detail in the film but, coupled with what we already know about him, bears witness to the fact that a job is never just a job to Fioravante; it hints at the soulful sensitivity he will bring to this new vocation. And a vocation is exactly what it becomes after he leaves Dr. Parker’s with an envelope in which she has not only placed the agreed-upon cash but a five-hundred dollar tip. After taking his cut (he made the arrangements, after all), an excited Murray starts lining up more clients for Fioravante, effectively becoming his pimp. Murray proves to be an ace at his new job, too; on his daily jaunts through the city, even while visiting Central Park, he has an eye for scouting out women who might appreciate Fioravante’s services, and judging by the blissful looks on their faces after their various rendezvous with him, they clearly do. Dr. Parker declares him “top shelf” and is now somewhat reluctant about sharing him with her sexy friend Selima (Sofía Vergara) as they make plans for their threesome.

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Then one day Murray brings a very different woman to Fioravante’s apartment. Avigal (played by French actress Vanessa Paradis) is a young widow from one of the Hassidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn – a mother of six children whose husband, a rabbi, has been dead for two years. Murray knows her because he purchased her husband’s collection of books after he died, and on an unrelated visit to her home, he senses her deep loneliness. A devout woman living under the rules and the watchful neighborhood eyes of her religious sect, Avigal carefully considers Murray’s suggestion that she venture outside her sheltered environs to visit someone who might help her. When he comes back with a car to escort her to Manhattan, she assumes he is taking her to a healer of some sort, and when they arrive at Fioravante’s place that expectation is still on her face as she gazes hesitantly at the massage table he has set up.

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The rest of the film is theirs—Fioravante’s and Avigal’s—though other characters in its ensemble cast continue to play important roles. It is theirs by virtue of the acting: Paradis has little dialogue yet speaks oceans with her eyes; Turturro plays the quietly soulful type with everyday-man casualness. And it is theirs by virtue of the story itself: these two meet where the probability of such an encounter seems unlikely, and when that is the case—when two people have to reach beyond what is the norm—any romance that ensues really is on a different level from most romances. It’s a higher kind of love, often a quieter kind of love, and transformational, even if only in a stepping-stone kind of way, as it is for Avigal. Her connection with Fioravante (whose name, she discovers, means “Flower”) allows her to bloom, to reawaken, and perhaps, in a certain sense, to start over.

Of course, while this is happening lots of other stuff is happening in the story, too: some of it sweetly comic, some of it more darkly comic, allowing the film to make a serious observation or two about life, love, and religion while treading a path that is mostly lighthearted. That’s not an easy balance to pull off in any form of storytelling, though Turturro makes it look easy here. Fading Gigolo is an autumnal slice of cinema tinged by melancholy, peppered with characters well-past the summers of their youth, and at the same time, it is a film of airy, elegant understatement. Like the sunlight of autumn that is briefer yet more piercing than summer’s long light, it is one of those deceptively small films that touches the heart more fully than one would imagine.

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Images are film stills from the 2014 film Fading Gigolo, written and directed by John Turturro (who also plays the lead character, Fioravante), which I found at various places on the Internet. The film can be rented or purchased as an instant video on Amazon.com.( No affiliation; I just love the film!)

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Perhaps my favorite Kristen Wiig film: Hateship, Loveship

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It’s not a film that did well (at all) at the box office, and perhaps with good reason: it’s quiet and stilling in its revelations, and thus requires a setting that is equally quiet to take it in. Hateship, Loveship, which came out in 2014, is a film for the small screen, preferably one at home, where its fine-boned performance by Kristen Wiig doesn’t have to compete with the attendant noise and clamor of a big screen showing. The combined weight of so much popcorn, endless movie previews, and loud movie-hall acoustics would be enough to crush it, and while some might consider that a weakness of the film, my own feeling is that there are certain packages marked “fragile” you really don’t want to crush, and this is one of them. In Hateship, Loveship, it is Wiig’s treatment of her character, Johanna, that is nuanced and delicate, and not the character herself: Johanna is actually quite strong, but when we meet her we don’t know this about her, we only know that she is dutiful. Discovering who she is beyond that is the focus of this film, and the process imbues Hateship, Loveship with a feeling of suspended animation, not unlike watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, though the transformation that takes place in Johanna is internal rather than external. And then again, perhaps its more accurate to say that it is our own perception of her, rather than she herself, that is the object of the transformation.

The film’s movie poster portrays Wiig’s character early in the film, when we first meet her: looking tentative and uncertain, Johanna clutches her packed suitcase as she stands against a background of wallpaper that practically matches the print of the dress she is wearing. It’s a telling shot: Johanna is very much a wallflower who, prior to packing her suitcase, was employed as the caretaker of an elderly woman. In the opening scene, the woman passes away and the odd-duck strangeness of Johanna becomes apparent in the way she takes great pains to lay the old lady out (to make her presentable) before calling the coroner. I should relate that at this early point in the film we don’t know Johanna’s relationship to the deceased, but in the rote way she undertakes these duties, without any kind of emotional reaction, we come to understand that Johanna is “the help”, so to speak, and that she is impeccable in that role. By the time she has packed her bag and moved onto the next town and next client — a well-to-do elderly man who lives in a big house with his teenage granddaughter, somewhere in Iowa — a clear picture of her has emerged. She is very much alone in the world and she is dutiful to a fault: in other words, to the detriment of her own well being and sense of self. She appears to have made a career of putting everyone else’s concerns before her own, and when an attractive man, a visitor to the house where she is now employed as a live-in housekeeper, shows her a small bit of attention, she responds in a way that is not surprising: she’s grateful, she starts to see herself differently, and she becomes hopeful in a way that makes her gullible and ripe for a hoax.

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Ken, played by Guy Pearce, in Hateship, Loveship

In this case, the hoax isn’t perpetrated by the attractive man, whose name is Ken (Guy Pearce), the son-in-law of Johanna’s new employer, Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte). It is perpetrated by Ken’s daughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) and Sabitha’s conniving best friend Edith (Sami Gayle), who is the true mastermind of it. Sabitha’s collusion can be attributed to her “bff” connectedness with Edith and maybe to feelings stirred by her family’s misfortune. On the surface, the McCauley home seems pleasant: Mr. McCauley is a gentleman, the house is well-maintained, and Sabitha seems like a normal teenager, sulky and sometimes difficult, but otherwise not requiring much care from Johanna.  Yet attendant with Ken’s visit is a sense of  tragedy: Johanna learns that he is the black-sheep of the family whom Mr. McCauley blames, perhaps rightly so, for the death of his daughter, Sabitha’s mother, and there are tell-tale signs that he’s struggling to get his life back together and making only shaky progress at it. While Mr. McCauley pays loving attention to his granddaughter and at one point in the film gifts her with a car, Ken, in his disheveled state, looks like he couldn’t be counted on to provide her a home. Even so, in spite of her good relationship with her grandfather, Sabitha clearly misses Ken, who despite his problems is quite charming. During his visit he takes Sabitha, Edith and Johanna out to eat, and weeks after returning to Chicago, sends a letter that includes a brief note for Johanna, saying he was glad to meet her and expressing his confidence in her ability to take care of his daughter. He signs it “Your Friend, Ken,” and like a crumb to a starving bird, it surprises and touches Johanna to the degree that she overreacts to it, writing a letter back to him. When she asks Sabitha for his mailing address, Edith is there and volunteers to mail it on her way home. Instead she opens and reads it with Sabitha, and though it is mostly a polite letter thanking Ken for his note and telling him a little about herself, Edith senses Johanna’s hopefulness. The two girls decide to play a trick on her and begin writing fake letters from Ken using an email address they create in his name.

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Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld) and her friend Edith (Sami Gayle)

Watching the transformation in the way Johanna views herself during the ensuing weeks of this false correspondence is like reliving the moment in time when you had your first crush. It recalls emotions that are, by turns, awkward and dreamy, and because you know that she is being set up for a very big fall — a fall far bigger than most of us have probably dealt with, due to the escalation of affections and promises made in the letters — it causes one to feel more than a sense of pained embarrassment for her.  The level of cruelty in this set-up is high and the pain one feels for Johanna is acute because she is not like most lonely-heart girls one encounters in movies. For one thing, she’s not a girl, she’s a grown woman, and it appears she has no one waiting in the wings: no family or friends to scoop her up and put her back together in the aftermath of what seems like a certain calamity.

However, one of the beauties of this film, and of Johanna’s character, is in seeing how calamities are overcome. Sometimes it is by stretching ourselves and daring to exceed what we think of as our capabilities, and sometimes it is by drawing on the capabilities we already have … that might not look like strengths to other people. Johanna’s grievous embarrassment when she arrives in Chicago with her life-savings in her purse — only to find out that Ken is a druggie living in a run-down shell of a motel (his sole possession), who has no knowledge of the correspondence she thought she’d exchanged with him — is absolute. So, too, is the love that grew inside of her during this time, and when she sees how unwell he is and the seedy conditions under which he is living, she couples that love with the other absolute in her life: her sense of duty.  It is a thing that dovetails nicely with love, but it also can be taken advantage of and not returned. For Johanna, duty seems to be the answer to her calamity — the thing to do in the face of it that cancels it out — but by the end of the film, this sense of duty finds its optimal tongue-and-groove connection.

There is a moment in Hateship, Loveship’s final scenes where Johanna encounters Sabitha’s friend Edith one last time. She and Ken and their baby have come back for Sabitha’s high school graduation, and at a party at the school, Johanna approaches the snack line to get a cup of punch and happens to overhear Edith telling a gentleman about her plans for college. “Congratulations,” Johanna says to her in a quiet and sincere way. Edith nods and continues talking to the man, elaborating her plans to major in pre-med and apply to Cornell medical school and go to Europe and start a family by the time she is 26. When she notices that Johanna is still standing there listening, she looks at her disdainfully and says, “What do you want?”

After the briefest of pauses, Johanna replies, “I have what I want,” smiles, and walks away.