American Gigolo premieres Sept. 9 on SHO streaming/demand and Sept. 11 on Showtime.
Forty-two years ago, director Paul Schrader and actor Richard Gere broke pop culture with American Gigolo, their unabashedly sexy noir murder mystery set in the high-price male escort trade in Los Angeles. It featured peak Gere as escort Julian Kay, full-frontal nudity (a first in mainstream movies), the extra hot Lauren Hutton as Michelle (his true love), and the stylish, sun-drenched locations of Southern California. Now, American Gigolo the series takes those main characters from the film and reimagines them as played by Jon Bernthal and Gretchen Mol in a much sadder and non-sexy tale in modern day. In fact, this American Gigolo might as well be a bait and switch for anyone expecting to get peak Bernthal using all of his potent skills of seduction onscreen in a modern character study about the profession. Instead, it’s a convoluted, soapy redemption story about a man who was molested as a teen and then groomed to be a sex worker.
Schrader’s film closes as Gere’s Julian Kay escapes a murder charge when his lover Michelle (Hutton) lies to cops and covers for him as his alibi. The series picks up in 2006, with Bernthal as Julian (birthname: John) charged for the murder of a client he wakes up next to but can’t remember how he got there or what happened. Encouraged to confess, he’s sent to prison where he’s haunted by the unknown of what happened that fateful night, which was the incendiary culmination of his fast life as a high-priced gigolo in Los Angeles. Fifteen years into his sentence, Detective Joan Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell) shows up to let him know he’s a free man because a serial murderer confessed to the killing and DNA backs it up. She admits it was some biased, sloppy police work that ruined his life, but c’est la vie!
With his reclaimed name of John, he returns to the bleak desert origins of his life, where he was raised fatherless in a trailer park with his tweaked-out mother and a female neighbor who sexually abused him in his early teens. Going back to his past triggers, the show’s irritating structure of flashbacks within flashbacks relies on John’s fractured memories to weave together the patchwork eras of his strange life. As a teenager, he is groomed to be a male escort by a woman named Olga who renames him as Julian. As an adult, he “meets cute” on a beach Michelle Stratton (Mol), who will be the love of his life but unattainable due to her wealthy, controlling husband. In the present, he earnestly tries to reconnect with her but she’s still married and a hot mess with a troubled teen. Their love for each other burns but only in memory. That leaves John with the question of what to do now: Does he return to his gigolo ways at the prompting of his best friend and fellow escort Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) or live a modest life in a rundown Venice beach hotel with his empathetic landlady, Lizzy (Yolonda Ross), and clean dishes at a restaurant?
If the ’80s movie was all about creating an attractive fantasy around Julian’s life and pursuits, as hedonistic and narcissistic as they might have been, the series has no interest in making anything in John’s life come across as sex positive. It’s clear from Episode 1 that John’s story is a really sad one, where he’s been exploited his whole life. He’s been groomed to be the perfect lover and listener for his clients although he’s never been able to receive what he provides: to be truly seen and loved by someone who can be with him. To Bernthal’s infinite credit, he sells the tragedy well, but the writing relies on having him stare into mirrors, waves, or even walls as it triggers into flashbacks galore where we get to see what he’s thinking over and over again. It’s clunky and overused across the first three episodes, and makes the John of today feel rather static and stuck reliving his past instead of being very proactive outside of the basics of living.
Bernthal is allowed to perk up a bit in the flashbacks with Michelle as they make doe eyes at each other in early flirting, which is backed up by dappled moments of spoken intimacy when they share truths about themselves during their clandestine trysts. As for the rest of his clients, those are relegated to a slick montage in the first episode where we see glimpses of naked women he services set against the iconic song from the film, Blondie’s “Call Me.” All of it feels cribbed straight from Schrader’s movie in terms of tone and look, and is then never organically repeated again outside the credits. It’s like series creator/director David Hollander is dangling a provocative carrot in his credits every episode that he yanks away from the piqued audience and instead layers on the chaste angst. It’s a strange choice that’s only exacerbated when the storyline spends far too much time by Episode 3 on a subplot involving Michelle’s teen son. The writers work overtime to create connections to John that feel really specious, so much so that when Detective Sunday calls him “the Where’s Waldo of crime scenes” you can’t help but think she’s speaking for our waning patience. And if it goes where expected, it will be a trite reveal.
Much like Showtime’s other recent drama series, Your Honor, which suffered from soapy subplot syndrome, American Gigolo also finds itself getting far too stretched to accommodate an ensemble of characters that aren’t particularly interesting. Aside from the scenes involving the characters of John, Lizzie the landlord, or Detective Sunday, everyone is playing within familiar tropes and not getting the best material to rise above. There’s certainly a turn by the end of Episode 3 for John, but by that point the series has been so diligent in impugning his former escort life that it only portends more tragedy to come. Woo-hoo?
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