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Showtime's 'American Gigolo' Did Not Age-Up Well

By Alison Lanier | TV | September 27, 2022 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | September 27, 2022 |


American Gigolo on Showtime is not a sequel to its iconic Paul Schrader-directed 1980s forerunner: it’s a reimagining, a version where (spoilers, spoilers, spoilers) instead of being exonerated at the last minute by the love of a good woman, the central character, beautiful male escort Julian Kaye (Richard Gere in the original, Jon Bernthal as the show’s lead) was in fact convicted of the frame-up killing of a client that he did not commit. Instead of looking forward, as Julian and the police’s investigation progresses narratively and the trap closes around him, we’re looking backward in this remake, digging through the shadowy networks of connections alongside Julian and Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell, in a truly thankless role) to discover who was really behind the bloody murder that robbed Julian of over a decade of his life as a free man.

To do that, the show picks through more than just the scenario around the murder itself, but through the trauma, poverty, and betrayals that lead him into high-class LA sex work. The show intimates that Julian is looking back with us, meditating on the path his life has taken, unable to connect with the materialistic and conceited man he was before he was framed. The ultra-wealthy Michelle (Gretchen Mol) is the woman with whom he had something really real—but her terror of her husband keeps them apart. Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré) has taken over as the cruel madame for whom Julian worked. Time passes, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Damaged and cautious, Julian begins to slip back into his pattern of playing many different roles to different people in the pursuit of truth … with the sense that anything as clean and shiny as “justice” will remain forever out of reach.

Sounds like an intriguing premise, right? I thought so. But a success story this show is not. But why? It’s well cast, with an ambitious, intentional re-imagining in the place of a stale re-trotting over the same story. So what doesn’t work?

The easiest answer is: it’s too heavy-handed. The show feels fixated on a kind of pain it should know not to try to articulate as directly as it does. There’s a sense that the show thinks because the film version already achieved certain aspects of the character, they aren’t worth reiterating. Julian the professional lover is far in the past, relegated to a single Blondie-scored montage in which many beautiful women appear topless. That montage is almost directly lifted from the film, including the homage/mimicry of Julian behind the wheel of his beloved convertible, wind in his hair, a picture of ’80s opulence. But the man is so thoroughly crushed in 90% of his screentime that this past life feels more like a fever dream than an aspect of his character.

The Julian of the show is softly jumbled, riddled with the aftermath of fifteen years of undeserved guilt. The character feels authentic in that sense, both as a convincing reimagining of the original and as an engaging arc all on its own. But there’s the problem of the previous version of the character we’re supposed to understand and incorporate into our sense of the story. He just doesn’t exist, unless you lean really hard on the movie.

Strike two: It’s just slow. And not in a tense, neo-noir, “Call Me” in minor key, slow-burn kind of way. Just in a slow way. (There is a cover of “Call Me” in a minor key, though, which comes closest, I think, to the feel the show really wanted to achieve.)

There’s a degree of restraint and tenderness to the performances, especially Bernthal’s, that should carry a lot of weight—but in this show, there’s too much slack for performances alone to recompense for. Where connections should feel delicate—either emotionally or plot-wise—we instead get hit over the head with ham-fisted clarity. Noir is always hard to do well, without making a parody of itself: it requires a level of confidence in your audience to join you on an emotive journey, to provide tension and trust that the viewer will trail doggedly along with it by virtue of their own fascination. American Gigolo doesn’t so much dangle hints as pull the viewer forcibly from point to point to point.

I can’t recommend the show, but I can certainly recommend a rewatch of the original to get that confident old-school artistry. You won’t find it this time around on Showtime.