The image of an aged Woody Allen facing down and failing to get a laugh from a row of stone-faced rabbis near the end of Fading Gigolo is indelible – a better visual joke about one of the past century's most contentious Jewish icons is hard to imagine. And, whatever else one might say about John Turturro's film, it deploys its septuagenarian guest star, who filmed his role in between the love-in of Midnight in Paris and the latest roundelay of media frenzy inflamed by Dylan Farrow's online open letter, to mostly superb effect.
In Fading Gigolo, Allen plays the amateur pimp to writer-director-star Turturro's titular male prostitute, and the contrast between the two actors – one stooped and pushy, the other hulking and dumbstruck – plays out as a kind of comic Cartesian divide. Cash-strapped bookstore owner Murray (Allen) is the (scattered) brains of the homemade outfit, while Fioravante (Turturro) is the (slightly aged) beef. Armed with the barest of business plans and a couple of noms de plume – Murray picks "Dan Bongo" while Fiorovante selects "Virgil Howard" – the duo try their hand at the world's oldest profession, much to the delight of their clientele of high-rolling, undersexed, overstressed New York women.
The preposterousness of this plot marks Fading Gigolo as a vanity project, but it's hard to take Turturro too much to task when he hits so many other grace notes in between blowing his own horn. The script's mix of self-deprecation and narcissism is potent; as in his urban musical Romance & Cigarettes, the director is going for something guileless and unabashedly passionate, and he gets much closer this time. Virgil's pregigolo gig at a flower shop occasions some lovely shots of exotic plants in bloom, the visual attention lavished on these processes make it clear that Turturro is filling the frame and the soundtrack with a few of his favourite things: jazz music, sultry beauties, Williamsburg street scenes and old his pal Woody.
In addition to writing and staging a few credibly Allen-esque comic scenes, Turturro also rings a gentler variation on the Big Apple tribalism of his other diminutive auteur buddy's Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Fiorovante becomes scandalously smitten with a Hasidic widow (a strangely well-cast Vanessa Paradis), which sets off alarms within her deeply cloistered community. Turturro's depiction of this Jewish subculture is gentle and curious, although it's amusing that an Italian actor who has played some of moviedom's most extreme Jewish caricatures –from Barton Fink to Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show – has written himself a role where he's on the outside looking in at the Chosen People.
The irony of Gigolo is that Turturro's lead performance is lacking. While Fiorovante seems to arouse strong feelings in the people around him, from Murray's exploitative affection to the panting anticipation of the female characters, he's little more than a cipher with an iconic character actor's face.
But Turturro's personality still comes through via the shambling, likeably ramshackle filmmaking, which leaves the impression of a small, slightly clumsy but still tenderly handmade object.
Editor's note: The original version of this review incorrectly said that Fading Gigolo is the first film since The Front, in 1976, that Woody Allen performed in but neither wrote nor directed. In fact, Mr. Allen co-starred in Paul Mazursky's 1991 film Scenes from a Mall. He also had lesser roles in The Imposters and Antz. This version has been corrected.