American Gigolo represents an important bridge between the anything-goes ethos of the ’70s and the style-over-substance extremes of the ’80s. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, whose crucially important contributions to the groundbreaking aesthetics of the New Hollywood include scripting Taxi Driver (1976), this sleek but slow-moving crime drama is half character study and half murder mystery. The former aspect of the picture is infinitely more interesting than the latter. By depicting and dissecting the life of high-priced male prostitute Julian Kaye (Richard Gere), Schrader explores male fantasies of conquest, power, and virility while also illustrating the ways that seeking social status and wealth can drive people to compromise—or even abandon—principles. There’s a certain electric charge to watching Gere, at the apex of his youthful handsomeness, cruising around the chicest neighborhoods of Los Angeles in an expensive convertible while decked out in perfectly tailored Giorgio Armani ensembles as he moves from one surreptitious tryst to another. Julian isn’t some brainless stud, after all; quite to the contrary, he’s a sophisticate with an ear for language and an eye for art. Seeing as how Julian also finds time for a personal love affair with the beautiful wife of a powerful politician, his life has more than a little bit of forbidden-fruit appeal, and that’s just the effect Schrader obviously wants.
The structure of the film tracks a slow unraveling of Julian’s façade, because once Julian becomes a suspect in the murder of one of his clients, the speed with which colleagues and friends and abandon him is alarming. Turns out the only thing holding Julian’s life together was his ability to avoid unwanted attention from authorities. Alas, while there’s a powerful melodrama buried somewhere inside American Gigolo, Schrader becomes his own worst enemy, both as writer and director. In terms of narrative, Schrader smothers the story with murky subplots. Among other things, the movie explores the power struggle between a madam for whom Julian works regularly and a pimp for whom Julian periodically “tricks.” Additionally, the film explores lurid fringes of Julian’s world by depicting S&M-infused encounters and by dramatizing the availability of quick cash for servicing male clients, a challenge for the heterosexual Julian. By the end of American Gigolo, the story has become convoluted and episodic, a problem exacerbated by the underdeveloped characterization of Julian’s lover.
In terms of filmmaking, Schrader lets the surfaces of the movie do s lot of the heavy lifting. From Armani’s clothes to John Bailey’s stylized photography to Giorgio Moroder’s disco/New Wave score, American Gigolo anticipates the superficiality of the MTV era. Even the leading performances are plasticine. Gere tries to hit angsty notes but ends up doing more posing than performing, and Hutton is little more than a well-groomed mannequin. (On the plus side, Bill Duke is formidable as Julian’s scheming pimp, and Hector Elizondo is amusing as a dogged police detective.) Still, there’s no question that American Gigolo left a mark on popular culture, elevating Armani and Gere to stardom and giving Blondie a No. 1 hit with the film’s theme song, “Call Me.”
American Gigolo: FUNKY