‘American Gigolo’: Showtime series turns movie into glossy but irresistible melodrama
In this bloodier, racier take, Jon Bernthal plays a more complex version of the Richard Gere sex worker.
“Here were my options: (1) take $50G and not be involved (2) take $0 and not be involved (3) threaten an expensive and futile lawsuit and not be involved. I took the $50G.” – “American Gigolo” writer-director Paul Schrader, explaining on his Facebook page he has nothing to do with the new Showtime series based on his 1980 film.
The opening titles to the Showtime series “American Gigolo” are a direct homage to the fashion-forward neo-noir movie from 1980, complete with “Call Me” by Blondie setting the tone for the lurid escapades to come — only this time around, it’s Jon Bernthal as the escort Julian Kay cruising Los Angeles in a luxury convertible sports car, á la Richard Gere back in the day. Still, while this update does include certain plot points and characters that echo elements from the feature film, it’s a stand-alone, kind of a parallel-universe version, and it’s even more sexually graphic and more violent than the original.
This is glossy trash, but I can’t deny the addictive nature of the blood-soaked melodrama, and after viewing the first three episodes, I’m guilty of looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. The always compelling Bernthal, who never shies away from the opportunity to go big with his emotions, makes for a more volatile, three-dimensional and complex edition of Julian Kaye than Gere’s squinty take on the character, and the supporting cast is terrific, with Rosie O’Donnell low-key stealing every scene she’s in as a badass, world-weary, deadpan funny LAPD detective who is one of the few characters in the entire series with an actual moral compass. (I’d watch an entire series focused on O’Donnell’s character.)
A series premiering this weekend, with episodes available on demand and streaming for Showtime subscribers each Friday, and then on the Showtime cable channel at 8 p.m. Sundays.
“American Gigolo” 2.0 has Bernthal’s Julian newly released from prison after 15 years when he’s exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit. Julian takes a “straight” job and finds lodging in a room rented out by a sympathetic landlord named Lizzy (Yolanda Ross) who becomes his friend — but he’s tempted to get back in the game as a sex worker, with the encouragement of his best friend Lorenzo (Wayne Brady, quite good in a mostly dramatic role), who is also a sex worker.
O’Donnell’s Detective Joan Sunday, who was convinced Julian was guilty back in the day and advised him to plead guilty, is determined to set things right and find out exactly what happened and who else might have been involved in that long-ago murder. Her plate really begins to fill up when there’s quite a bit of bloodshed in the present-day world, often involving people who Julian may or may not have known. (“You’re like the ‘Where’s Waldo?’ of crime scenes,” Sunday says to Julian.)
Storylines veer this way and that and at times things feel a bit muddled, especially because there’s so much jumping along the timeline, from the present day back to 1993 when Julian was just 15 and his mother sold him into sex work (Gabrielle LaBelle plays the young Julian, whose real name is Johnny), with occasional stops in the 2000s as well. Gretchen Mol does fine work in a role somewhat similar to the part Lauren Hutton played in the film; her Michelle Stratton is the wife of a tech billionaire, and she was once in love with Julian and maybe still loves him today, based on her reaction when she sees Julian for the first time in 15 years. (Michelle has a teenage son who just ran away with his teacher, adding yet another scandalous subplot to the proceedings.)
Sandrine Holt is Olga, the self-proclaimed “queen” who employed Julian and dozens if not hundreds of other sex workers in Los Angeles, while Lizzie Brocheré is Isabelle, Olga’s heir apparent, who as a little girl had a crush on young Julian and now might become his boss if he gets back into the game, and yeah, that’s creepy. “American Gigolo” is populated with a variety of other shady characters, some quite capable of violence, others certainly not to be trusted.
Bernthal’s Julian is all outward swagger, with his mop of uncontrollable hair, his street-talk cadence and his ripped and tattooed physique, but he also has an almost gentlemanly air about him (he calls some women “ma’am,” warms to a stray dog and is quick to offer a helping hand to others). Julian is damaged goods and he’s done some terrible things in his life, but as we learn from his backstory, it’s a miracle he still has a soul and he still has a shot at redemption.