It would be a bit too simplistic to simply see this movie as a cautionary morality tale. Sure, it sounds simple: two old friends decide to foray into the world’s oldest profession. Fioravante (John Turturro) is a flower arranger who lives alone in a modest apartment in New York City. He’s not particularly young, nor is he especially handsome, but his cash-strapped old friend Murray (Woody Allen) convinces Fioravante that he has just the right combinations: masculine without overbearing, quiet enough to be approachable, but articulate enough to be an engaging conversationalist. Sensitive without being overly dramatic. Spiritual enough to recognize devotion in others without being religious himself. Not inclined to blab everything he knows. Oh, and he genuinely enjoys pleasing others. In other words, the perfect gigolo.
It’s amazing how quickly Woody Allen’s character turns this into a part-time hobby along the moral lines of painting cabinets. Here’s his friend Fioravante, ready and willing for lonely women to pay him to be with them, so where’s the victim here? What’s the harm? Who’s getting hurt?
Well, of course, it’s Fioravante who is surprised to suddenly find his emotions involved – not the first or second or third time, but the one who cried when he rubbed her bare back. Because nobody had touched her tenderly for so long.
Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) is a young rabbi’s widow, whose sensual re-awakening surprises even herself. But her absence from the tight little Orthodox community has been noticed by the neighborhood patrol guy, Dovi (Liev Schreiber), mainly because he has a crush on her and is too shy and fearful of rejection to tell her.
Yes, we actually have the scarlet woman dragged before the tribunal, where the learned rabbis sit in judgment on her imprudent behavior – yes, comically ironic. We almost expect Jesus to come in and say, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” but of course He doesn’t need to, because she’s already ‘fessed up to more than they dared to consider, and in the end freely admits to being lonely, which, of course, is awfully difficult to prosecute someone for.
Even though the dialogue was written by John Turturro, coming out of Woody Allen, it still sounds so Woody-Allen-like: the stops and starts, the stuttering subtleties, the stammering dilemmas, the cadenced self-awareness. It’s a wry, intelligent film with a great moody-jazzy soundtrack that boasts big plot holes that nobody really minds. Least of all the characters themselves.
What would you do for a friend in need? What wouldn’t you do? And when you’ve stretched yourself beyond your comfort zone, will you readily snap back to your old form, or will you be re-shaped, somehow, by the expanding experience?
Sure, those who love New York will enjoy this even more. But even us flat-footed Heartlanders can develop an appetite for urbane, sophisticated, cosmopolitan whimsical fluff.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.