One of the great pleasures of regular movie-going isn't seeing great films. It's finding the little oddballs, the modest entertainments that miss just as often as they hit, but leave you with the feeling that someone poured heart, soul and a sense of humor into the work at hand. Fading Gigolo, the fifth feature from writer-director — and, of course, actor — John Turturro is one of those pictures, a three-legged cat of a movie that ambles along cheerfully and sweetly, possibly without ever quite knowing where it's going. Still, resolute if somewhat off-kilter, it always keeps moving. And where else are you going to see the très adorable French pop star and actress Vanessa Paradis as a Brooklyn lice-picker?
In Fading Gigolo, set in a vivid and instantly recognizable New York, Woody Allen plays Murray, the owner of a rare-books store who's being forced to close up shop. He needs money: He lives with a woman, played by Tonya Pinkins, who may be a wife, friend or girlfriend, and is helping to support a family of four kids. (The relationships aren't quite clear, but his benevolence and sense of responsibility are.) As it turns out, Murray's dermatologist has mentioned that she and her girlfriend are interested in setting up a threesome — might he know a suitable, good-looking candidate? (The movie's casual acceptance that dermatologists in New York ask these sorts of questions is part of its intentional, go-for-broke absurdity.) Murray immediately thinks of his friend, Fioravante (Turturro), a part-time florist who's been helping out at the shop. Fioravante at first demurs, but relents because he needs money, too — and, as he comes to find out, Murray's "clients" turn out to be sultry hotties played, with gusto, by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara.
Turturro casting himself as a sex symbol in his own movie is probably intended as a bit of a joke, though it isn't one at all. His Fioravante is sexy. That has less to do with the specifics of his face — that shy, snaggle-toothed smile, for example — than with his carriage and demeanor, and his casual kindness. Fioravante puts on polished shoes and a dashingly tailored overcoat and steps out on Fred Astaire legs to meet his clients; he's got so much class that he heats up any joint he walks into. It's little wonder that when Murray connects him with a lonely and heartbroken Hasidic widow, Paradis's Avigal, she responds as much to his friendly warmth as to anything so banal as his touch.
For her, of course, that touch is forbidden. Murray meets Avigal when he brings one of his little charges to her home in Williamsburg to be deloused. (No matter how you feel about Woody Allen, the unmitigated horror that animates his face when he hears the word "lice" is something to behold.) Avigal is observant and chaste, her hair covered by a scarf or wig, her dark dresses and coats reaching safely past her knees. No matter how comically saucy or ribald Fading Gigolo gets, the romantic friendship that blossoms between Avigal and Fioravante is the core, and it's believable in large part because of Paradis's gentle radiance.
Fading Gigolo is a breeze, enjoyable both for its sweetness and its unapologetic silliness. And much of it takes place in Williamsburg — an interesting choice on Turturro's part, and one that cuts to the heart and eternal mystery of living in New York.