My Huffington Post readers may recall that I have a long association with Woody Allen. We grew up in the same Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and went to the same public and high schools, although with some years difference between us. And I was the V.P. production head of the Palomar-ABC film company which was responsible for his first film, Take the Money and Run (made very successfully in San Francisco for $600,000). In recent years I have written mostly rave reviews on HuffPost of his films. Thus I was at the Landmark Theatre on Friday night when his new film, FADING GIGOLO, premiered here in L.A.
Well, it's not exactly Woody's film....though if you didn't know its background you would target it as a perfect example of Woody's somewhat sick, brilliant humor. In it he plays a pimp. What? Yes, a very funny pimp....but still a procurer, a pimp hilariously nicknamed 'Dan Bongo.' Actually, he is a cash-strapped antiquarian bookseller named Murray Schwartz who by chance touts his close friend, John Turturro (character name Fioravante, a florist), and finds that it is profitable and easy. Turturro is the talented actor who wrote and directed them both in this weirdly wonderful piece. He appears in both mainstream action films like Michael Bay's Transformers and the independent quirky ones of the Coen Bros. He told the New York Times that he and Woody happen to share a barber. And one day he was getting trimmed when he ruminated out loud to his barber a mad idea of his playing a gigolo with Woody as his pimp. To his surprise, he got a call a few days later from the 78-year old Woody, who had heard the idea from the same barber. The Woodster said that he would love to appear in it, so Turturro then had to sit down and write it. He has said that originally it was a much broader comedy but as he spoke to Woody and friends, it evolved into a much more sensitive, whimsical tale. He did want all of the characters to be 'mature' in age, showing late-blooming love in all of its ramifications. It was filmed entirely outside of the studio system, and Millennium Entertainment stepped up for financing and distribution. (I have no doubt that Woody had a major uncredited impact on the writing of the script. In the film, he is living with the black family of a gregarious woman and her three kids, whom he babysits and teaches to play baseball.)
The 56-year old Tuturro finds it easy at first to be a 'for hire lothario' when his first encounter is with two sexy bombshells played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara (she of the TV comedy Modern Family). It all begins when Woody's beautiful dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), in an empty marriage, mentions that she is looking for a man to participate in a ménage-a-trois with her and her equally-gorgeous friend, Selma (Sofia). Murray, whose bookstore has just closed, sees a chance to make some money and recommends his friend for the gig, asking for a $1,000 fee. While Fioravante is at first reluctant to be Woody's 'ho,'he also is short of cash and recognizes that there are worse ways to earn a living than making two attention-starved women happy. Thus an unlikely partnership is born. Turturro first goes to Sharon's bedroom for a pre-menage tryout...and passes with flying colors. ("How much did she pay you?" "Twenty-five hundred dollars....$2,000. for two hours and a $500 tip.")
Things get a little complicated when his pimp, Woody, fixes him up with a Brooklyn widow, Avigal, (the lovely French actress/singer Vanessa Paradis, she of Johnny Depp fame with two kids together, in her first English-speaking role), who has never experienced 'intimacy' with a man. She lives with her six children in the sheltered, cloistered Hassidic community of Crown Heights of her late rabbi husband. They meet when Woody brings the black kids to her to be de-loused. He recommends she sees his friend, a 'healer,' We see this woman visit Fioravante and come alive under his skilled, gentle touch and tutelage (and back massage.). He, too, feels something unusual, which he never expected. The trouble with this is that her other 'admirer' since boyhood is an orthodox Jewish neighborhood policeman, Dovi, played by the powerful Liev Schreiber (Showtimes's Ray Donovan). As Fioravante makes his rounds through the bedrooms of Dr. Parker and Selma, as well as his more chaste meetings with Avigal, Murray is discovering it is not so easy to be a pimp. He finds out that the secular and the orthodox must come to a head sooner or later. In a hilarious moment, the cop pulls Woody off of the street into a limousine and brings him before a Hassidic tribunal to account for his sexual match-making actions. (Go to Vulture Video to see a clip of this.) Bob Balaban plays the fast-talking Jewish lawyer, Sol, who intercedes for them in front of the Hassidic court.
As I said, this amusing film by John Turturro could equally have been a 'Woody Allen film,' with its uncluttered direction, absurd but charming character development, witty throw-away lines, and hip jazz score. As a film producer myself, I can only imagine the bravery which John exhibited to take this actually-absurd idea to the marketplace. Without Woody, it would have been hopeless....but with him, it is fabulous. I admit it, I absolutely loved every minute of it and intend to see it again next week. And I'm trying to persuade a friend of mine to tout me to Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergera. Now that's a film fantasy!
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