Friday, May 16, 2014

‘Fading Gigolo’ urges us to broaden our horizons

“Fading Gigolo” (2013 production, 2014 release). Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara, Bob Balaban, Tonya Pinkins, Jade Dixon, Aubrey Joseph, Dante Hoagland, Isaiah Clifton, David Margulies, Abe Altman, Sol Frieder. Director: John Turturro. Screenplay: John Turturro. Web site. Trailer.

For many of us, there comes a time in our lives when we find ourselves stretching in ways we never thought possible. Those instances can be exhilarating, introducing us to talents we never knew we possessed and enabling us to access vast untapped reserves of personal power. Of course, those revelations seldom materialize unless we recognize the opportunities that make such episodes of personal growth possible, which may be tricky if they call for us to venture outside our comfort zones. These are among the challenges posed to a cast of colorful but longing characters in the quirky new comedy, “Fading Gigolo.”

After years of operating a rare books business, Murray Schwartz (Woody Allen) is reluctantly forced to close up shop, the exorbitance of New York’s commercial real estate rents having finally gotten the better of the family-owned operation. Faced with having to find a new income source, Murray considers his options, one of which is more than a little odd: During a routine visit to his beautiful but lonely dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), Murray learns that she’s interested in finding someone with whom she and her flirtatious friend, Selima (Sofía Vergara), can have a ménage à trois, and she asks her stunned patient if he knows anyone who might be able to accommodate them. Though initially astounded by this inexplicable, outlandish request, Murray nevertheless decides to think it over, because he just might have someone in mind.

While packing up his bookstore’s unsold inventory, Murray shares Dr. Parker’s proposition with his longtime friend Fioravante (John Turturro), a reserved, middle-aged everyman who works as a part-time floral designer. The reason? Murray believes Fioravante would make a perfect third for his doctor and her friend.

Fioravante wonders why Murray would consider him for such a strange proposal; after all, he’s not exactly male model material, nor is he experienced in this sort of “work.” But Murray counters that Fioravante’s blue collar good looks, coupled with his sensitive nature and innate ease with women, make him a good candidate. What’s more, considering what “the job” pays, Murray believes the cash will come in handy. Of course, in Murray’s mind, the money will do more than supplement his friend’s paltry flower shop income; it will also earn him, as Fioravante’s “manager,” a handsome finder’s fee. After thinking things over, Fioravante agrees (albeit somewhat tentatively), and an unlikely new joint venture is born.

In the run-up to “the big event,” Fioravante first meets with Dr. Parker and Selima individually, and they both come away from their experiences more than satisfied. The once-reluctant escort enjoys himself, too, and he quickly discovers he’s a natural at this sort of thing, a realization that leads to securing additional clients. Before long, Murray and Fioravante are rolling in dough, something that neither of them saw coming – and that neither of them is willing to walk away from anytime soon.

Circumstances change, however, when Murray connects Fioravante with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a revered Chasidic rabbi and a mother of six who lives in Brooklyn’s orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood. Given that this new “client” hasn’t spent much time in the company of men since her husband’s death, Fioravante’s meetings with her are considerably more chaste than anything he has with his other customers. In fact, Fioravante’s times with Avigal are more platonic encounters than sexual romps, experiences that nonetheless stir long-dormant feelings in each of them. Fioravante’s romantic tendencies, indicative of his inherently sensitive nature, begin to emerge. Likewise, Avigal’s long-repressed sense of passion surfaces, revealing an earthy side of herself that she’s barely aware of, despite years of marriage. But, beyond that, the improbable duo also seems to be falling in love. And so yet another unexpected outcome arises, one that dramatically shakes up Avigal’s life – and that seriously jeopardizes Fioravante’s commitment to his new line of work.

Avigal’s uncharacteristic behavior also gets the attention of others, most notably those in her closely knit community. As the widow of a respected cleric and a doting mother, Avigal comes under considerable scrutiny from her neighbors; her reputation and well-being are sources of community concern, and the locals feel responsible for what she does and whatever happens to her. Leading the pack of those watching over her is an overprotective community security officer, Dovi (Liev Schreiber), who has quietly pined for Avigal since the two of them were children. So, when “questionable events” begin to transpire in Avigal’s life, Dovi doesn’t hesitate to get involved and make his presence felt. But, despite his sincere concern, Avigal nearly always responds by giving him what appear to be polite brush-offs. Appearances, however, may not always be what they seem – both for those who witness them and those who project them.

How everything eventually shakes out will take some profound soul-searching for all involved, not to mention the intervention of a rabbinic council and even Murray’s lawyer, Sol (Bob Balaban). But the efforts that go into resolving these chaotic circumstances have the potential to pay significant personal dividends for everyone, even when they yet again lead to outcomes that no one sees coming. However, wasn’t venturing into the unknown what got all this started in the first place?

Traversing uncharted territory, both literally and figuratively, can be daunting propositions, and virtually everyone in this film must come to terms with the idea. Murray, for example, explores what it’s like to run a new type of “business.” Fioravante shares in this undertaking and, through it, learns about “talents” he never knew he had. Meanwhile, as Fioravante awakens to these new “skills,” Dr. Parker and Selima join him for the journey, venturing into the provinces of their unexplored erotic territories. At the same time, Avigal learns new things about herself, allowing repressed feelings and desires to come forth. The same is true of Dovi, who’s finally willing to let his guard down to make his sentiments known, without any guarantee of success, a truly risky venture for someone so rooted in tradition.

In each of the foregoing cases, however, before any of the characters can proceed with their new endeavors, they must first change the beliefs that foster their realities, for those intents dictate what ultimately manifests through the conscious creation process. In these particular instances, each of the characters must deal with overcoming personal limitations to be able to examine these new probabilities. As noted above, this can be intimidating, but getting past the fear and being willing to take the plunge are crucial to their personal growth and development, enabling them to reap the rewards that come with discovering parts of themselves they never knew existed.

The interactions the characters have with one another are, of course, the means by which these epiphanies become possible. These encounters provide the connections and synchronicities that enable their transformations, showing them not only things they may not have known about themselves, but also things they may not have known about the nature of reality and how it materializes. Such realizations can thus open up them (and us) to even greater possibilities never before considered. Indeed, they (and we) may well wind up thinking, “If I can accomplish that, then what else is possible?”

Discovering (or rediscovering) such “magic” in one’s life can be quite invigorating. This is especially true for those who have reconciled themselves to existences devoid of such wonder. Suddenly they find that life has much to offer – and in ways they may have never before envisioned.

Of course, such an expanded awareness also calls upon us to make sure that the possibilities we bring into being are truly in line with our inherent nature. This thus puts the spotlight on the concept of integrity. Once we’re familiar with what we’re capable of creating, we also often find that we can’t deny the need to be truthful with ourselves about what we manifest, for anything we materialize that rings hollow will become painfully apparent very quickly, another realization that this film’s characters must come to terms with.

However, no matter what risks or pitfalls may accompany this process, the rewards that come from it are more than worthwhile compared to any adjustments or “sacrifices” we must make. Adopting – and acting upon – an expanded view of life (and reality) can bring us joys beyond measure. And that’s a pretty good payoff for what’s often a modest investment. But, then, we must remember that we’re making that investment in ourselves, and I can’t think of a better place to put our personal capital.

“Fading Gigolo” is a generally enjoyable, occasionally uproarious comedy, even if some aspects of the story seem highly implausible. But those who are willing to suspend the limitations of convention (just as the characters themselves strive to do in this story) will come away nicely entertained. Admittedly, most of the characters could have benefited from more fully developed back stories (especially in Fioravante’s case) to better understand their motivations, and a number of obvious plot holes could have been more effectively plugged, but these shortcomings don’t significantly detract from the fun on offer here.

The picture fields an impressive cast, too, especially in the supporting roles. Vergara is an absolute hoot, and Allen serves up some of the best on-screen work he’s done in years (and in a rare acting turn in a film he didn’t write or direct). Turturro’s performance, however, though nicely nuanced at times, is nevertheless a little too understated. In delivering his portrayal, Turturro comes across like an older (and less interesting) version of the character Paulie Carbone he played in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). In light of this, he may have better served his film by casting someone else in the lead and reserving his role to that of writer and director.

Broadening our horizons is an exercise that calls for taking chances and risking loss. But it also holds the potential for tremendous personal benefit, often beyond expectations. It’s ironic that such profound insights arise from a film that might easily be misconstrued as little more than an upscale sex comedy, but that’s one of the unexpected joys that comes from it, a revelation not unlike what the characters themselves experience as their stories unfold. Maybe we should follow the examples set in these amorous exploits – and enjoy the “cigarettes” that come afterward.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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