American Gigolothe 1980 erotic thriller from writer-director Paul Schrader who made Richard Gear superstar, begins with an iconic title sequence. Gere, as high-end sex worker Julian Kaye, cruises the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mercedes convertible with the hood down, the wind blowing through his glossy hair. Like blondeCall Me’s “Call Me” blaring, he dresses up in a fancy suit, lets an older woman foot the bill for the outfit, drops her off at a respectable-looking home, and heads down the road.
American Gigolothe 2022 Showtime drama series from executive producer and showrunner Nikki Toscano (The offer), who throws Jon Bernthal as Gere, faithfully updates the montage while retaining its undeniable theme song. Derivative but entertaining, the series is almost as good as the show. While the original film captures the zeitgeist of its era, the entire sequel (premiering September 11) going for it — aside from a charismatic performance from its reliably great lead — is nostalgia.
A sequel that revisits aspects of Shrader’s story and brings it up to date, this Gigolo picks up where its predecessor left off: with Julian in prison for a murder he can’t remember committing. It’s been 15 years since his sentence and he doesn’t seem particularly unhappy behind bars; he’s grown a mustache, tattooed his torso, and earned a place in the prison hierarchy. Suddenly, Detective Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell, gender-bending Hector Elizondo), the cop who locked him up, arrives with the news that a dying murderer has confessed to the murder and DNA has confirmed it. Julian is free, but who set him up? And why?
Thus begins his tortuous, half-hearted quest to understand. He seeks out his old friend Lorenzo (a stunningly flawed Wayne Brady) and married ex-lover Michelle (Gretchen Mol, in a dull variation of Lauren Huttoncharacter in the film) whose husband is a terrifyingly powerful tech billionaire. Interspersed with the story, set in the present, are flashbacks spanning from his teenage years in a posh brothel to the period immediately before his arrest. We watch as his pitiful mother sells the barely-pubescent Julian to the domineering Madame Olga (Sandrine Holt), in a trite origin story for a character that works better as an enigma.
Jon Bernthal, left, and Wayne Brady in Showtime’s “American Gigolo.”
To revive Gigolo after 42 years as a clear if confusing plot, the whodunit must fundamentally misunderstand the film. Released as the revolutionary, hedonistic 70s transition to the reactionary, materialistic 80s, it’s an ambiguous study. Shrader doesn’t just keep the murder mysterious; he also keeps us guessing about Julian’s backstory, motivations, even his sexual orientation. (Julian 2.0 comes as extremely straight.) A stylish man, a sex worker, made a powerful symbol at a time when feminism and gay liberation were challenging traditional roles in the bedroom. (Credited as “executive consultant,” whatever that means, Schrader said though that he had no actual involvement in the show, which he always believed was a “terrible idea” but chose to cooperate rather than “threaten an expensive and pointless lawsuit.”)
Those lonely pandemic years saw many efforts to revive the erotic thriller craze of the 80s and 90s. Fatal attraction writer Adrian Lyne is back with the Abyss Deep waters. Sidney Sweeney headlined mid-generation Gen Z, The Voyeurs. Paramount+ is developing Attraction series featuring Lizzy KaplanJoshua Jackson and Amanda Peet. So far, these projects have failed because the taboos of the 20th century are old news. Delineating sex workers or queer people as exotic others would be disingenuous now, even if it wasn’t offensive.
To strike a nerve, an erotic thriller must capture what’s erotic, exciting and controversial in the present (see: 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titan, in which a woman impregnated by a car finds a makeshift family). Showtime’s instead Gigolo circles around topics such as child sex trafficking and sexual relationships between teenagers and older women. These are safe, unequivocally serious social issues to lean on for thematic resonance in an otherwise redundant sequel. And if there’s one thing that kills the erotic thriller even faster than nostalgia, it’s choosing to play it safe.
This appears in the September 12, 2022 issue of TIME.
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