Apparently, only Woody Allen can make a Woody Allen movie. At least a good one.
That's the upshot of director/writer/star John Turturro's "Fading Gigolo," a comedy that proves imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not necessarily the best.
"Fading Gigolo"★ ★ ½
Starring: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev Schreiber, Vanessa Paradis
Directed by: John Turturro
Other: A Millennium Entertainment release. Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations. 98 minutes
At a casual glance, you might swear that "Fading Gigolo" came from Allen, one of the film's stars. Its Allen-esque touches include a dreamy jazz score sprinkled with golden oldie standards and a parade of musty, dusty New York apartments and offices.
Yet, there's something missing here. That indefinable Allen spark, the honed-edge one-liners and the New York scenes bursting with the filmmaker's love of the city.
Turturro's film offers us those very elements, yes, but they feel like a Xerox copy of the original. Almost the same.
But not quite.
The story begins with the sinking economy forcing Murray (Allen) to close his long-standing family New York bookstore. Meanwhile, a struggling florist named Fioravante (Turturro) worries about his dwindling bank account.
Their financial issues appear to be solved when Murray proposes that the florist consider doing a "threesome" with his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (the still smoldering Sharon Stone).
Despite being married, she wants to do the dance of the wild bunnies with her best friend Salima (Sofia Vergara) and a male player to be named later.
Murray tells Dr. Parker he might know just the guy, but it'll cost her $1,000. Chump change for the dermatologist.
Fioravante may not be classically handsome, but the middle-aged florist looks in good shape and possesses a sad countenance of patience and experience. Good lighting really helps, too.
The book seller and florist soon become a social hit with the Big Apple's remarkably attractive older ladies, apparently starving for male attention and simple intimacy.
(This poses the question: "What's wrong with all these New York men?")
Turturro wrote the character of Murray with Allen in mind, so the idea that Murray represents a stretch for the venerable filmmaker might be the biggest joke in the movie.
Oddly enough, Turturro gives himself the story's least interesting character, a virtual blank slate with no connections, no family, no history, no conflict. Not much of an accessible personality, either.
"Fading Gigolo" begins to fade, until the luminous Vanessa Paradis appears as Avigal, a Hasidic widow of a rabbi with six children and the alluring face of a suffering angel.
Avigal reluctantly agrees to meet with the florist in what becomes the movie's most alive scene, a tender moment in which she breaks down after experiencing the most chaste of physical contact.
(The scene recalls a similar one from Paul Schrader's "American Gigolo" with a brashly youthful Richard Gere extracting women's deeply buried yearnings from years of neglect.)
In a gangly subplot, Liev Schreiber plays Dovi, a member of the Hasidic community police patrolling the neighborhoods. He has worshipped Avigal from afar, and he turns jealous and protective when he senses her seeking male attention outside the Hasidic confines.
Turturro is a fearless filmmaker who gave us "Mac" -- a smart drama about clinging to high standards in a cheap and shoddy world -- plus the bold, blue-collar musical "Romance & Cigarettes."
In "Fading Gigolo," Turturro sidesteps the moral issues of the movie's comic sex trade premise, culminating in the creation of a Woody Allen generic equivalent.