Forty Years Later, American Gigolo Still Works
Showtime’s Retelling of an Iconic Film Will Make You Want to Call Them
Paul Schrader may be one of the greatest unsung filmmakers in the history of American cinema. He is best known for being one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest early screenwriters, collaborating with him on such masterpieces as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. As a director he is one of the most brilliant voices in filmmaking from early works such as Blue Collar and Mishima to astonishing independent films such as Affliction and Autofocus to later masterpieces such as First Reformed and The Card Counter (he has also written every film he has directed). It is hard to find a single recurring theme in Schrader’s work (Roger Ebert thought there were patterns throughout groups of his films). Some, like Nick Nolte in Affliction are weighed down by trauma from their childhood, while some carry the weight of their families names (Woody Harrelson in The Walker). Others like the characters in Blue Collar and Ethan Hawke’s priest in First Reformed are dealing with the brokenness of the America they live in.
Schrader’s sole box office hit was one of first films as a director American Gigolo. In what would be his star-making role, Richard Gere took on the title of Julian Kaye, a male escort who caters to mostly older female clientele. He falls in love with a client (Lauren Hutton) and is accused of a murder. A well-written and engaging film, it is by far Schrader’s most accessible movie and perhaps the biggest surprise is that is taken this long for it to become adapted for television. The opening credits of the Showtime series instantly evoke the mood of the movie showing Julian driving down the highway in his convertible, serving his clients, all the sound of ‘Call Me’. But the creators of this series have a far more interesting story in mind.
In the pilot, Julian ends up taking the wrap for the crime he was exonerated of in the movie. We actually catch up to Julian after fifteen years in prison, still handsome but with most of his style gone to seed. Then he is visited by Detective Sunday, the cop who got him locked up and she tells him that a hit man has confessed to the murder he was accused of. Julian is now a free man…but that assumes he was ever free to begin with.
Jon Bernthal has become one of the iconic actors of the past decade. Breaking big as Shane on The Walking Dead, his true breakout role came as Frank Castle, first on Daredevil, then as the lead on The Punisher. This role has given actors fits for more than twenty five years, but Bernthal managed to instantly own when he took on the role. There are still quite a few people pissed when Netflix divested itself its entire Marvel franchises and The Punisher went with it. Then earlier this year, Bernthal took on an even deeper role as Wayne Jenkins, the Baltimore cop at the center of the Gun Trace Task Force on We Own This City. Like so many other David Simon/HBO collaborations, it was worthy of many Emmy nominations. Like all of those series, it got none and Bernthal was one of the excluded.
Now Bernthal takes on the role of Julian, which is in a way one of his biggest career shifts. He has spent the past decade playing ruthless authority figures; Julian is a man who has been playing a role for so long he doesn’t know what it’s like to be genuine. He has no idea what to do now that he’s neither a prisoner nor an escort.
The movie glamorized the lifestyle of prostitution. The series goes out of its way to show just how filthy the lifestyle it is. For starters, much of the series is spent in flashbacks where we see Johnny (Gabriel LaBelle) growing up in the desert, living life as a trailer park kid trying to support his mom. Then one day, he comes home and finds his mother has ‘sold’ him to a woman we know as ‘The Queen’. Whatever innocence Julian had is sacrificed as he is quickly groomed into prostitution.
The only good thing that Julian ever had in his life was Michelle, played in the series by another wondrous talent Gretchen Mol. Like Bernthal, Mol has realized her potential in Peak TV, most famously as Gillian Darmody, a literal MILF who we found out was essential the cause of so much of the strife in Boardwalk Empire. Just as Bernthal is perfect cast as Julian, not only for the physical resemblance but also the stature, Mol is just as superb as Michelle, who wanted a future with Julian but lost it when he went to prison. Still married to her husband, a Silicon Valley millionaire with not an ounce of compassion in his soul (Leland Orser is quite brilliant) she has a son who at the beginning of the series has run off with his older teacher. Michelle wants her son back, but when she sees Richard talking with a threatening look man, she knows that bad things may happen. The marriage has clearly been for show for awhile; it’s not clear yet how much Richard knows about her affair with Julian, but it’s clearly ripped all the scars open. Julian tries to reach out to Michelle in his first days out, and the sparks are still there, but both are trying to avoid it.
Julian is now trying to rebuild a new life, but he can not let go of the old. He finds himself back in the roam of the business which is now being run by the daughter of the Queen, Isabelle (Lizzie Brochere) Isabelle is clearly just as damaged as Julian has been, as we see in the one major sex scene the series has shown us so far. Julian would clearly not be back there if he didn’t want to find out how he ended up getting set up for murder.
The showrunner of American Gigolo is David Hollander, best known for being the head of another dark Showtime series Ray Donovan, admired by many, considered overrated by me (most of the way). However, Hollander has done a much better job establishing Julian than he did with Ray in the latter series, and it’s clear why he was drawn to the adaptation. Ray and Julian are both seriously traumatized men; both of whom were first groomed and sexually abused as children, both abandoned by their parental figures (in Julian’s case, his mother.) The fact that Hollander is dealing with Julian’s past right up front (something that it took Ray Donovan six seasons to finally deal with) shows that he may have learned from his mistakes on that front.
And the series is well cast with many actors giving surprising turns. Rosie O’Donnell, continuing a solid late career run that began with SMILF is surprisingly good as the hard-bitten Detective Sunday. Perhaps I care less for her performance (though its solid) then the fact of her characters existing: rough-hewn veteran female detectives are few and far between even on Peak TV and on the few exceptions (Holly Hunter on Saving Grace and Mary McConnell on Major Crimes) there is still some residual sexiness, which O’Donnell never had. She continues to impress me as does Wayne Brady as Lorenzo, a former colleague of Julian, looking heavier and more gone to seed than his public persona.
It’s still too early to say with certainty that American Gigolo can stay the course. There are some weaknesses in the early going that are concerning. I’m not entirely certain the story of the hunt for the Stratton child is a plot that the series needs right now, unless there’s some kind of payoff that connects to Julian. And it’s not entirely clear yet if the plot looking into Julian’s frame-up is a solid foundation for the series to be built on. But all things considered, American Gigolo so far is that rarest of birds: an adaptation that takes enough from the source material to be recognizable, but has enough variation to be good in its own right. With this series and Yellowjackets, it’s looking like Showtime, after a few years in the wilderness with original dramas, may be building a foundation that will make them the most fascinating center for Peak TV.
My Score: 4.25 stars.