Fading Gigolo – John Turturro (2014)



John Turturro is not, objectively speaking, a handsome man. You know this, and I know this. He knows it, too. Subjectively speaking, that changes. He’s confident, conversant, funny and has a hint of the maniac in his eyes. His face, you find as you take all of that into consideration, has real character.

In Fading Gigolo, which sees him play a mild-mannered florist turned reluctant (but rather high-priced) gigolo named Fioravante, that punim is the tool that Turturro wields as both actor and director. If he were handsome, it wouldn’t be a comedy; if he were without the many traits that give him character, it would just be a joke. But his face is the Goldilocks example: just right.

With Woody Allen as his pimp, Murray, Fioravante becomes the No. 1 loverman of his ZIP code – for a price, which they split. It’s all in practice for the initial request that comes to Murray from his therapist (Sharon Stone), who nervously wants him to arrange a three-way for her and her curious best friend, Selima (Sofía Vergara).

It’s a somewhat scatterbrained, novelistic film, though. The real plot is set off when Murray brings his adopted black child to the “lice lady,” a Hasidic widow named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis). Thinking she needs some comfort, Murray suggests Fioravante’s services under the guise of massage therapy. En route to her session with Fioravante, the Jewish neighborhood watchman (Liev Schreiber) with a lifelong crush on Avigal follows her to the appointment and susses out Murray’s plan, eventually kidnapping Murray to bring him before a rabbinical tribunal.

A complicated plot is fine for a novel, but in film, simple is almost always better. Each half of the plot is strange and funny in an entirely different way, but the two never mesh as a whole like they might in a novel, so the wildness of this storyline grab bag leaves the stitching far too visible.

But there is an almost perfect passage around the middle in which all of the extraneous elements part to the side and the film’s loneliness is examined. Fioravante and Avigal are characters from two different worlds, worlds that make it impossible to do anything about the budding connection they find together, but they smash face-first into the wall of love without worrying about it. For the briefest moment they find themselves. Not as a couple, but what they’re about as individuals.

It’s an elating, surprising piece of story, but it’s far too short-lived. Despite some funny moments, especially early on, before the film decides that it wants to be a little bit more than a straight comedy, you would have to say that the gigolo storyline doesn’t really fit into the film outside of the title. It’s a MacGuffin, but not on purpose. It was meant to be the funny part, but the story outgrew it and no one told Turturro. It’s brave to do something so different, but brave efforts don’t always work out. If they did, they wouldn’t require any bravery.

Whatever Works – Woody Allen (2009)



Pairing fellow ne’er-do-wells Woody Allen and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David together is an idea so natural that it comes as a forehead-slapping shock that it actually happened. Peanut butter and jelly come to mind at the idea of the perfect synthesis of these two bespectacled hypochondriacs illuminating the screen in tandem; for as much as they laid down a basic thematic principle for Woody, the jokes at the beginning of Annie Hall (“The food here is terrible, and in such small portions!”) could sum up David’s style just as well. Here are two guys of similar neurotic Brooklyn upbringings who are both nonplused that anyone finds them interesting. On paper, it’s a perfect fit.

What works on paper, however, does not always translate onscreen. Then again, perhaps judging Whatever Works against the very idea of comedic perfection is asking too much.

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) is the definition of a misanthrope: He hates you; he doesn’t know you, but he thinks you are a submoronic inchworm anyway. Yellnikoff’s philosophy boils down to the simple concept that life is miserable, and in such a small portion. Thus, “Whatever works,” he says, to get through it. He likes to remind people that he is a man with a huge-beyond-comprehension worldview – a self-satisfied perspective with the end result of a full-on mortality crisis that leads him to divorce and attempted suicide.

But this misery that starts as a scathing lament for the failed human species ends up a tender, funny meditation on the staggering mathematical improbability of everyday chance encounters, like when a Mississippi street urchin named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) charms her way into Boris’s apartment and, eventually, into his life. What follows is an astute movie about existential torment and impractical desire.Whatever Works won’t set the world on fire but it has more than its share of riotously hysterical moments and delicious absurdities.

David does not play the “Woody role” as such. Boris was originally written for the huge shoes (and belt) of Zero Mostel in the 1970s, but could not be made before he died. Therefore, the film comes off as a throwback to Allen’s older, quick-witted verbal comedy. The script was revived thanks to the threat of an actors’ strike that never materialized. This is not the first time David has stepped into Mostel’s shoes – the fourth season of Curb featured David stepping into Mostel’s role in The Producers – but the problem is that every other character is in a Woody Allen film, while Boris feels ripped directly from Curb. The character is not enough of a stretch from the Larry David of the TV show to bridge the gap in styles.

Quick Hits on Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen (2011)


-I was admittedly extremely nervous about the casting when the list was first released. It was all over the place, and I’ve always struggled with Own Wilson in roles outside of Wes Anderson films, where he, more often than not, has co-written the script with Wes. Even when he hasn’t, Anderson seems to have Wilson’s unique voice emblazoned in his head and always writes fitting roles for his old college buddy. But nerves aside*, I had been excited for this film since I heard the basic time-travelling premise. Not only did Allen deliver on my excitement, he far exceeded it, giving us his best film since 1999’s  Sweet and Lowdown, which is certainly in my top five Woody Allen films.

-The more I think about the film’s thesis (that everyone is actually born in the right decade, whether they want to admit it or not), the more I agree with it. Much like Gil, I’ve always wished I was born in a different time, though what for him was Paris in the 20s, is for me Hollywood in the late 30s/early 40s. But there are problems inherent in that, just like there are problems inherent with the Parisian 20s for Gil. What about the depression? What about the war? What about having to wait 20, 30, 40 years to see my favorite films again? What if I ran into John Ford or Charlie Chaplin? I’ve met some people I idolize in modern times, and Don Mattingly and Jimmy Smits were really the only ones that weren’t in some way a let down. John Ford would certainly be a let down — he was a notorious asshole. I wouldn’t want that to ruin The Informant or How Green Was My Valley for me, which it likely would. But that’s just rambling. What about the lack of air conditioning? What about no Woody Allen?

-All that said, Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Ernest Hemingway absolutely steals the movie. If you’re familiar with Hemingway that is. He talks in long, rambling, Hemingwayesque passages and constantly looks for someone to box with. It’s delicious, but I was the only one in the theater laughing at some of it.

*Woody Allen films tend to make me nervous because I hold him in such high reverence that I don’t want him to fail — I never want to see him make anything as bad as Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else again — which is probably too slanted a view to go into a film with, but that’s just how my brain has processed it. It doesn’t affect my view of his films really, except that many I’m a little more disappointed when expectations are not met, as they weren’t really met with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Whatever Works.

Zelig – Woody Allen (1983)



When you think about, or talk about, Woody Allen films, its always the same few that come up. Between whatever he has out right now, Annie HallManhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, they make up the lion’s share of the Woody Allen conversation as it stands currently.

If it’s a thought or conversation of any length, then Crimes and Misdemeanors or Bullets Over Broadway (or maybe one of the older, funnier films) might squeak in there somewhere, or else it’ll descend into some nonsense about the Soon-yi scandal, or turn to a question of which of his evil twins, exactly, made The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

The man has directed over 40 films now, going back to What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966, so it’s not difficult to see why some films would necessarily get left out of the conversation. But of all of the films left out, it’s the brilliant faux documentary Zelig that seems like the greatest injustice.

It feels odd calling a film with a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes underrated. In fact, it was one of his best reviewed films upon release, and even did well at the box office for a highbrow comedy. But since then it has virtually disappeared from the Woody Allen conversation.

Zelig was written and shot in tandem with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and the two comprise his first works with Mia Farrow on board after a string of hits with Diane Keaton. It was one of his strongest periods, but it seems as if Zelig is one of the least viewed Allen films now for people under a certain age. It was even one of the last Allen films that I saw (for the record: all of them, except Alice and What’s New, Pussycat). There seemed to be no cultural pressure to see it, unlike Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or even Stardust Memories, Allen’s B&W take on Fellini’s 8 1/2. But I ended up seeing in Zelig one of the greatest comedies he has produced.

Allen plays Leonard Zelig, the great curiosity of the jazz age, a so-called human chameleon. So desperate is Zelig to be liked – or, more accurately, so desperate is Zelig to not be disliked – that he becomes, physically, the people he is surrounded by.  Around Greeks, he becomes Greek; around fat men, he becomes fat; around the great black jazz musicians, yes, he becomes a great black jazz musician.

It all stems from a party during his college days when he was asked his opinion on Moby Dick. Having never read it, he is seized by a fear of being ostracized by his peers for having not read something so basic and canonical, and so instead of admitting the truth, he instantly states that he has read it and enjoyed it. This simple white lie is the gateway to a deepening psychological state of ever-changing uniformity.

When he comes to the attention of the world at large (thanks in no small part to the jazz age’s other great legend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, at a party, observes Zelig morph between upper-class, old-money republican with the guests and a lower-class, poor democrat with the help), Zelig comes under the care of a female psychiatrist, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who is banking on making her career on solving his case and returning him to a normal life. For a woman in the ’20s to want to do this was an outrageous thing, and she comes up against the brunt of her male peers who dismiss her ideas and theories, going so far as to claim there is nothing actually wrong with Leonard. But she stands her ground in spite of private and public pressures to give it up, which serves as the perfect juxtaposition to Leonard’s easy way out.

Much of the psychology of this story stems from Allen’s childhood, which is greatly colored by the shadow of WWII. In Radio Days he spends his time in Coney Island looking for German U Boats. In Zelig, he spends his wit and insight on the ability of fascism to exploit this flaw in human nature to fit in, to be liked, or to not be disliked. Fascism depended on this willingness to get along that many, if not most of us, are the victims of. It was the great bully party, and there exists no real firewall to this flaw being exploited again aside from the easily distracted media and wonderful comedians, exploiting the exploiters.

But somehow the word mockumentary doesn’t quite fit Zelig, despite the fact that it fits both definitions of the word “mock.” At the time of its release, all anyone could talk about was that the film was a technological achievement for Allen and director of photography Gordon Willis, which is something that bothered Allen greatly. Well, it was a great technological achievement, of course – especially in the pre-CGI days when even ILM was still doing practical effects – but the story ended up being largely ignored as something funny, but frivolous, never quite reaching the heights of his previous films.

It’s an absurd stance, though. Zelig remains Allen’s most thoughtful commentary on the human condition. Yes, it looks like it will be boring from the trailer and the posters, but this is mainly because it is meant to mock those types of documentaries, the kind you were forced to sit through in school. There is just no way to accurately portray the depth and breadth of the film, promotionally speaking. There is only to sit back and watch it.