A romantic comedy is a fantasy about love. It’s a fantasy of finding love, of love overcoming the odds, of love doing away with any other difficulty that life might present. At the end of the movie, when the guy and the girl decide they can’t exist without each other, we know they’re going to live happily ever after.
“Fading Gigolo,” directed by and starring John Turturro, is a romantic comedy, but it’s only partly about love. It’s also about New York in the fall; about used bookstores and old-fashioned diners; about walks in the park and trips to the grocer for wine and baguettes. It’s a fantasy about male friendship, which endures even when love doesn’t. And when it comes to love, it’s a fantasy not of romantic bliss, but of a kind of delicious sadness.
The movie centers on the gallantly named Fioravante, a single, middle-aged New Yorker whose life has become prematurely becalmed. He lives in a small apartment, works part-time at a flower shop, and part-time at M. Schwartz and Sons, a used bookstore owned by his friend Murray. When Murray (played by Woody Allen, a fact that was a bigger selling point before renewed allegations of child abuse hit the press) decides to close the store, Fioravante suddenly needs another job.
Murray’s solution is to pimp Fioravante out to his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), a glamorous bisexual woman unhappy in her marriage and intent on pursuing a ménage a trois. After much cajoling — “You’re an experienced lover, why shouldn’t you get paid for it?” Murray asks — Fioravante agrees.
The premise of a middle-aged man taking up sex work to earn extra money isn’t exactly new; it was used, unspectacularly, in movies like “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and TV shows like HBO’s “Hung.” But here the prostitution plot is little more than a comic foil to the love story between Fioravante and Avigail (Vanessa Paradis), a hasidic widow from Williamsburg who has her own sideline checking Murray’s stepchildren for lice. (Once again, Allen posing as the stepfather to another woman’s children is an unfortunate choice, even if here they’re African-American boys.) It’s an unusual setup, certainly, but like an ink-wash painting, rendered with a consummately delicate touch.
Turturro is best known as an actor, especially for his roles in Coen Brothers’ movies like “Barton Fink,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski.” But he is also an accomplished director whose movies include “Romance and Cigarettes” (2005) — an outrageous musical drama about the trials of an unfaithful husband and his family — and “Illuminata” (1998), a romantic farce about a theater troupe in early 20th-century New York.