Showtime’s American Gigolo doesn't live up to the original

·4 min read
Jon Bernthal in American Gigolo
Jon Bernthal in American Gigolo

The first episode of Showtime’s American Gigolo is scored by an acoustic cover of Blondie’s “Call Me.” The song serves as the title credits tune for this reimagining of Paul Schrader’s seminal 1980s film of the same name, and it’s in those credits where we first read that this is no mere adaptation. Julian Kaye (here played by Jon Bernthal) and the story around him that Ray Donovan executive producer David Hollander has dreamed up is based on Schrader’s characters. But it’s clear from the get go that this is less a reboot than, well, a cover.

There are familiar beats here that call back to the 1980s setting of the original (see: Blondie, but also Kaye’s silk suits and even cocaine being the drug of choice for these various characters). But there’s a decidedly different rhythm at work. For starters, despite its title, American Gigolo seems somewhat uninterested in the career of its central character. For while Julian was once a coveted escort who could seduce any older woman who’d have him, with some help from his erstwhile madam and the wardrobe and lifestyle she provided for him, that life is all but reduced to wispy flashbacks.

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The central narrative of Showtime’s American Gigolo is set in the present when, 15 years after serving a sentence for a murder he didn’t commit, Bernthal’s Julian (née Johnny) tries to reenter life in Los Angeles as a new man. He’s left his life of sex work in the past and is eager to get a job in a kitchen and have a fresh start. Yet leaving his past behind doesn’t prove that easy. Soon enough, he’s looking for that one girl slash client whom he may have gotten too close to (Gretchen Moll’s Michelle Stratton) and finding himself yet again at the center of a murder investigation led by a dogged cop (are there any other kind on American television?) played by Rosie O’Donnell (a highlight of the show).

At its core, this reimagined noir toys with some of Schrader’s themes around sex and power, but it ends up lacking both the alluring and the propulsive mechanics of its source material. Juggling too many timelines and shuttling between them during any given scene (as Julian walks along the beach in the present, he flashes back to dates past; moments in prison whisk us back to when his mother first “sold” him to a dashing older woman) means there’s little to hang on to—especially when the driving narrative force of the show is supposed to be a sprawling twinned murder mystery that twists upon itself one too many times.

This is why Hollander’s approach to the material rightly never feels like an adaptation of Schrader’s deliciously lurid and sun-dappled neo noir. Instead, it’s both prequel and revival. Even as we follow Julian trying to break old habits, the show yanks us back to pivotal moments in his childhood and teenage years that are supposed to inform us about who he was and who he became. Except these memories are often fragmented and dislodged from any linear narrative. Like strobe lights at a club, they shuttle in and out of our present storyline, at times ending up feeling like dialogue-free sun flares that capture mood more than backstory. That’s often how we get to experience Julian’s relationship with Michelle before he was sent to jail. We see them enjoying lovely walks in Venice or lounging leisurely on a bed.

American Gigolo (2022) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME

Julian’s instruction (and introduction) to the world of sex work is similarly presented in a kaleidoscopic way, with moments with his Madam Olga shuttering in and out without them ever allowing us insight into who this central titular character once was. We see he was once a charming teenager and later a seductive young man, and, from Bernthal’s furrowed brow, he’s now a stoic grounded man. There’s a holographic approach to this kind of character development where you’re constantly encouraged to see glimmers of all three at any given time.

But it also means you can never draw a straight line from one to the other. More to the point, this constant fragmentation means you have a hard time being anchored in any given character. Some, like Michelle’s domineering husband (Leland Orser) remain helpful ciphers. Others, like Julian’s new landlady (Yolonda Ross) are hazily sketched at best (a shame since this is a wildly talented ensemble). Perhaps as it clarifies its central mystery and all too slowly weaves together the many strands it’s initially setting up, American Gigolo may emerge as a provocative proposition. As it stands, from the three episodes we watched, it doesn’t quite live up to its infamous title. It begs for you, in other words, to ignore this modern, gritty cover and lose yourself in the sounds of the original.