'Fading Gigolo' (R)

In Fading Gigolo, writer-director John Turturro turns what could have easily been a crass and unpleasant comedy into something soulful and substantial — with a lot of laughs, too. Turturro stars as a flower vendor who, on the advice of his out-of-work bookseller friend Murray (a wonderful Woody Allen), becomes a high-class male escort. Adopting the working names of Virgil and his pimp Bongo, the duo fares well at pleasing the likes of Sharon Stone, sexy again, and Sofia Vergara, who is able to make you laugh with every line of dialogue.

But the situation gets more complicated and personal when Bongo hires Virgil out to Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a Hasidic rabbi who has crawled into a ball of self-repression after the death of her husband. Just the touch of Virgil’s hand is almost overwhelming for her, and their relationship grounds the comedy with a sweet, tender center (Liev Schreiber plays a neighborhood watchdog who harbors a secret crush on Avigal).

Despite the preposterous nature of its central premise, Fading Gigolo gets by due to Turturro’s emphasis on the inner state of his characters, not what they’re doing. The subtle sleight-of-hand allows you to believe women as beautiful as Stone and Vergara would resort to an amiable but average-looking Joe like Turturro in order to fulfill their fantasies. The dialogue, too, has a rat-tat-tat speed that keeps you from thinking too closely about plausibility and allows the picture to sweep you along.

This is a fun, seemingly frothy bauble that turns out to have a surprisingly emotional center. By the time Virgil is defending himself in front of an Orthodox tribunal, Fading Gigolo has transformed into the sort of wise, observant comedy Allen made in the middle of his career. His performance as Turturro’s mentor is also his best screen turn in ages; he keeps the movie spinning with his trademark fussiness.

Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara.
Writer-director: John Turturro.
A Millennium Entertainment release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Writer-director John Turturro will participate in a Q&A session via Skype following the 7 p.m. showing Friday. For more information, visit www.gablescinema.com or call 786-385-9689.