Low Gear Tricks

American Gigolo directed by Paul Schrader at the Sack Pi Alley

AMERICAN GIGOLO sizzles in Paul Schrader's panning camera, exuding the noxious odor of a raw, sandy strip of Canadian bacon. Dripping of fat, California oozes like a wet silkscreen across a blank matte, uninhibited, rubber-spun, Midasized. California as a deathly seducer, California as a golden road to Luke's Body Shop, California as a white and fiery sale for polished, antique organs--Schrader takes no chances. He plays fixed checkers, hopping from red to black, focusing where the sun shines. But American Gigolo dies even as a mere California movie because it doesn't know where it's coming from, where it's head is at, it's too intense, it sips Manhattans and Perrier, it plays no tennis, and worst, it loses its cool.

Richard Gere is the American gigolo, a gorgeous man whose labia-lipped half-smile can turn on a hydrant at 40 paces. A prostitute, a hairy, hunky whore, he slinks from bed to bed, selling orgasms by the bushel. Tanned like a sowhide wallet, he hides behind Annie Hall sunglasses and a wardrobe of pertly collared shirts, thin neckties and sharp jackets, always trim, cut, trained. He steps on the balls of his feet, his hips leading his chest, for single older women who want it. He has trained brains, he knows antiques, he has more than Looking Good on his wall-length bookshelf in his Aramis apartment in the Westwood Hotel. He likes his work.

A lady I was with the other night hadn't had an orgasm in ten years. It took me three hours to get her off. I didn't think I could do it. I didn't think I was going to make it. Who else would have taken the time?

Gere isn't beautiful all the time, however, His character is a dip, moreover--slow, thoughtless, imbecilic, lacking personality and the ability to muster emotion. Schrader cast Poor Richard as a giant, swaggering, vending-machine penis, the only item Frederick's of Hollywood doesn't carry, a French tickler with batteries. Self-indulgent, he takes more time choosing an outfit than he does kissing Lauren Hutton to a silly-faced plateau of pleasure. Rarely can he park his 450 SEL without it lurching forward as he jumps out. He picks up women in foreign languages, yet he speaks French like a scratched Berlitz record at 78. He is boring.

GIGOLO could have been an orchestrated rock-teasing paean to American sexuality of barely sublimated desire, bulging jeans and watery eyes, sex sans porn, pulse without flesh, a lean, lacquered look at the demons of the California Dream. Instead, Schrader concocted a laughable montage of silly sequences, an absurd plot and bad lines that reaches climax in a bizarre series of fade-outs that symbolize pauses between pelvic thrusts. Gere, as Julian Kaye, makes it clear that he does only straight, high-class women. He looks more embarrassed than worried when he gets framed for a handcuffs-cum-sex murder that he didn't commit in this kinky-trick movie that John Travolta should have made. Schrader filled his script with coincidences and absurd plot devices that are so ridiculous, so inconceivable they may well be true--the way True Confessions and True Love are true.

Truth was not Schrader's goal, however. He tried to create a tense, sexual rhythm of color and sound, the lust of America pressed to a video disk. But he directs with the subtlety of Bo Derek disrobed, surrounding Julian with red-colored objects and shadowy bars, trapping him in a bloody, infernally chic hell.

Schrader paces his film like a march through a rain forest, pausing every few yards to admire the "architecture" of Southern California. Each sequence begins with unnecessary shots of buildings, deck chairs and doorways, and enough driving to explain last summer's gas shortage. The movement of Schrader's camera is confused, boring in with a point of view, then halting to let the scene develop. It races past a row of Westwood parking meters trying vainly to create tension, and hacks its way through a Gere/Hutton sex sequence. In one nice touch, though, the Gigolo voices have a stupid, vapid sound, a style of speech learned on the Venice boardwalk or a Malibu sundeck. But Schrader couldn't resist a Mozart organ opus as accompaniment for a mellow-dramatic finale.

Lauren Hutton plays Michelle Stafford, the horny wife of a U.S. Senator who drools over Julian, wants him so bad she shakes in his presence. She follows in the grand tradition of Ali MacGraw in Players, a beautiful older woman who can't read a line without revealing her flawed front teeth or her flawed acting. To be fair, no one in American Gigolo has a decent role because Schrader's script fails so miserably ("You could have forgotten me," whines Julian. "I'd rather die," whispers Michelle).

Richard Gere is a remarkable actor. He proved so in Days of Heaven and he is now lugging rocks to raves in Bent on Broadway. But his gigolo moves in low gear, too serious if Schrader's attempt was satire, too absurd if the attempt was straight-faced. Michelle's Senator-husband summed it up perfectly: "I know a whore when I see him."