• Vanessa Paradis and John Turturro in Fading Gigolo

One thing I’ve noticed about the response to John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, which ends its run at the Landmark Century tomorrow, is that people who don’t like it really don’t like it. The anti-Gigolo crowd seem downright appalled by the film’s sentimental view of prostitution, and I’ve heard at least one viewer decry as chauvinistic fantasy the premise of rich and beautiful women paying Turturro’s middle-aged shlemazel for sex. I really can’t argue with someone taking offense with Gigolo for either reason—the film trades in sensitive subject matter, and not in the most sensitive fashion. What seems to push viewers over the edge, though, is the film’s brazen silliness—the casting of Woody Allen and R&B singer Jill Scott as a married couple and French model-actress Vanessa Paradis as a Hasidic widow, the incongruous Borscht Belt-style humor that enters into the sexually frank dialogue. I regard these elements as an expression of Turturro’s oddball humor, but detractors see only ineptitude, if not a childish misunderstanding of how the world works.

If Turturro is so divorced from reality, then why are his sexual politics worth taking seriously? Is there something about the blaring falseness of Paradis playing a Hasid or Sharon Stone playing an undersexed doctor that makes the sexual fantasies especially distasteful? As I argued a few weeks ago, I think the film raises these questions deliberately as a way of challenging our prejudices about sex and ethnicity. Admittedly, few people go to movies for this reason, particularly if those movies are ridiculous sex comedies involving Hasids. Perhaps viewers are angered by Fading Gigolo because they feel the film takes them for a ride.

I’ve noticed that Lee Daniels’s Shadowboxer and The Paperboy provoke similar outrage in viewers. Like Gigolo, these films hinge on unusual sexual desires, and their casting is so unrealistic as to suggest a Brechtian distanciation device. Apparently this is an explosive combination, and I can see why. The effect of having Helen Mirren play the sexually possessive stepmother of Cuba Gooding Jr. or having Stone play at sexual deprivation is to make the characters’ desires seem real while making their identities seem unreal. To me this suggests a dramatic expression of the theory of gender as a social construction—in these movies identity is a form of role-play.

It’s possible I’m overreaching. When I interviewed Daniels a year ago, I proposed this argument to him, and he claimed to have no idea what I was talking about. “When I work with actors, I want to see them transform,” he told me with barely suppressed enthusiasm. For Daniels—and, I suspect, for Turturro as well—the magic of narrative movies rests in actors’ power to convince us they’re people they’re not. If you consider movies to be part of life (to borrow an expression of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s), that idea carries unsettling implications.