Movie Reviews

American Gigolo (1980): A Classy Look at Redemption

Despite the title and the involvement of Jerry Bruckheimer – the top Hollywood producer that has probably best epitomized the idea of a blockbuster in the last thirty years –   ”American Gigolo” may well be the most European work of Paul Schrader.

The movie opens in much the same way as another film which is essential in the work of this writer-director – ”Taxi Driver” – a movie which closely resembles the themes and the humanistic conundrum of  ”American Gigolo.” ”Taxi Driver” showed Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) emerging into the damaged social conscience of the post-Vietnam era in a taxi cab – a moving coffin – relentlessly trying to cut through the gloom and the doom of a generation that may have lost its way – the American dream gone wrong. The movie opens with Julia Kay (Richard Gere) racing down in his convertible down the California coast on a sunny day while adjusting the volume of his radio as he listens to Blondie‘s ”Call Me.” He seems to live an ideal life, accompanying rich women and living off of a lifestyle that many would wish they could have. Things get complicated for him, though, when he is called in for a kinky encounter with the Rheimans – an eccentric businessman and his wife – at their home. Details are left for the imagination but a murder transpires and it is soon clear that whatever happened in the couple’s room with Julian poses a moral dilemma for him with unfathomable consequences. At around the same time, Julian meets the wife of a powerful politician who is running for governor in the upcoming election. Her name is Michelle (Lauren Hutton). At the time of meeting, he approaches her, assuming she’s a potential client. However, after getting into the conversation, he finds out that it’s best not to proceed further. She is intrigued by him, on the other hand, and goes out of her way to get information about this mysterious man. She seems to think that he has something she needs. She has lived a sheltered, pampered life for some time with her husband and she seems to want to experience something new. At first, he seems to think that she is out of her depth, but amusingly decides to lead her on. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the murder case / investigation – and all the moral dilemma brought about by his involvement (or lack thereof) in it – and the relationship of Julian with Michelle, and how these situations feed off each other psychologically for these two characters. The criminal investigation is carried out by cigar-chomping detective Sunday, a physically unprepossessing wise-cracker who, despite his initial appealing to Kay’s vanity and self-confidence, he does not hesitate to claim that Julian is ”guilty as sin.”

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Schrader, however, goes a little too far by keeping what really happened with the murder under wraps, until the end. It comes across too much as a gimmick to cover everything with an aura of mystery that doesn’t really fit. Part of that mystery is owed to the moral dilemma Julian Kay is facing, but it denotes more an unintended lack of clarity from the script than a calculated plot choice. Everything is too hemmed in. There is a certain lack of oxygen that would have rendered more plausibility to the complex feelings of these two characters.

Gere and Hutton have an unusually classic beauty for two American actors. In Gere’s case, it would have been interesting to see what John Travolta – the actor originally cast for the role – would have made of the role. Still, Gere delivers an understated performance. His suave, smooth moves; his gallivanting through the rich, opulent halls of the best hotels of Palm Springs seem second-nature to him; and when his life falls apart and he suspects that he may have been framed so that Rheiman walks away with murdering his wife, his distress – while somewhat contained – is believable to a cinematic extent. The execution of the film is in tune with the central character’s existence. Existentialism is, in fact, the theme that Schrader chose to borrow  for the screenplay and the making of this film- drawing heavily from the 1959 Robert Bresson French film ”Pickpocket”– and that is palpable throughout the film – minimalist but somewhat self-conscious of its intellectual reference.

It is quite a beautiful movie to watch, and, interestingly, very much like its central character – very self-conscious, stylish, cool, and, in a way – for reasons I will expose later – a bit vacuous. Despite the subject matter, the movie sidesteps any inclination to show the lurid details of the sexual underground Julian is somehow part of. Instead, Schrader is more concerned about delivering a throwback to a not so distant time where a sea of existentialist themes push to come to the surface.

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Despite the high-minded ambitions of the director, the movie, however, does not quite manage to take off the way it should primarily for two reasons: the police investigation – together with Kay’s moral dilemma in the midst of it – do not seem to go hand in hand; what’s more, much of what is related to the murder seems too shady and hard to follow, and the way Kay deals with his feeling of guilt seems, at times, arbitrary. It is all meant to be a mystery, but it is handled in a way that the ”whodunit” part is too obvious and even distracting. The second factor is the relationship between Julian and Michelle, which  feels  a bit underdeveloped- their transition from a sexual, experimental liaison on her part to a love relationship is not believable enough for us to care about the final outcome of these two from an emotional standpoint. It’s all too cold, too distant, and too sketchy. Still, there are some nice touches throughout – like subtle moments such as when Schrader shows different shots of objects in Kay’s apartment as if trying to describe this character through his belongings but in a muted, expository way – almost draining those items of any life by omitting their context, probably emphasizing the trivial role of such things in Kay’s life. In this aspect, it is also worth mentioning how Kay uses his precious belongings – his paintings – as an accessory to the grand life that he aspires to enjoy and also as a way to conceal the simplicity of his life – this is clear when he is shown trying to figure out where best to hang up a painting, or when he picks up a painting and contemplates it in a moment of silence when Michelle first shows up at his apartment, almost as if trying to wrap that moment with a cloth of passive elegance. An interesting scene is when he is flirtatiously arranging his shirts and ties while he is listening and humming to ”The Love I saw in You was Just a Mirage,” by The Miracles, is also a nice little moment to portray his superficial routine before going to work.

In all, while the movie does have some issues in terms of character development and a sketchy treatment of the police investigation, Schrader shows some perceptiveness in adding some subtle brush strokes to Kay’s character that point to a shallow existence. In that regard, I cannot recall seeing a movie whose spirit so closely resembles the character it portrays. A tribute for this must be paid to Paul Schrader, a writer-director that has devoted his entire career to  a series of marginal, lonely characters looking for redemption. ”American Gigolo”, despite its flaws, is an interesting rendering of Schrader’s European-inspired sensibilities, set against the backdrop of that quest for the perfect redeeming angel. American Gigolo may be less of a definitive entry than ”Taxi Driver,” and the problem may well be with the concept itself. Comparisons can be unfair, indeed, but appeasing one’s demons by saving another soul in need may be a more redemption-worthy scenario than finding redemption in true love, as does Julian Kay in ”American Gigolo.” Julian Kay speaks several languages, is sophisticated, superficial, charming, and deeply troubled. The fact that Schrader has managed to put together a  character that elicits such an array of mixed emotions can be attributed to his unique gift as a writer and as an observer of psychologically multidimensional characters.

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