With crime American gigolo (Streaming on Paramount+ starting September 10) Debates about masculinity, gender identity and sexual desire are given a contemporary twist.
David Hollander (Ray Donovan) is at the forefront of this remake, drawing on characters created by Paul Schrader from his film of the same name, starring Richard Gere. In this incarnation, however, that role – which has done so much to make Gere a household name – falls to Jon Bernthal, who as Julian Kaye hits a home run from minute one.
What is clear in those first few minutes is that David Hollander respects his source material; American gigolo is one of several seminal works by Paul Schrader that rank alongside taxi driver and The card counter than films that explore masculinity.
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As a lateral thinker of mainstream cinema, who counts Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola among his contemporaries, he continues to shape cinema today.
With reference to American gigolo, creator David Hollander is clever enough to adapt this formula only slightly for a new generation in which attitudes towards objectifying others no longer have concrete limits. Here ex-convicts can’t pick up where they left off seducing women for money.
Told through a combination of flashbacks, American gigolo jumps between past and present, anchored by Bernthal’s Julian and Gabriel LaBelle’s younger incarnation. The latter complements his older incarnation perfectly, as the audience experiences pivotal moments that define that persona. In these opening episodes, it is American gigolo presents the audience with an agenda that some find difficult to stomach.
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Although the central premise focuses on finding those responsible for defaming Julian upon his release from prison after fifteen years, what American gigolo really exploring is all Paul Schrader was looking for answers to over forty years ago.
Although the sexual landscape may have changed, questions of identity remain just as ambiguous, while discussions of identity relate to them more than just biology.
Alongside Bernthal as Julian, Gretchen Mol follows in the footsteps of former client Michelle Stratton and forms the only truly loving relationship on screen. There is a tenderness and understanding between them that her connection with husband Richard (Leland Orser) lacks. After his fifteen-year hiatus, however, things have moved on and she has a teenage son who ironically loves a teacher more than his own family.
As Julian adjusts to life outside, memories are triggered by chance encounters with old friends, certain items of clothing in shop windows or, more poignantly, a return home. A place where seedy trailer parks confront each other, while formative flashbacks explain where his attitude toward sex was first formulated.
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Gifted with attributes that made it an attractive proposition for women of all ages, this is the place to be American gigolo really starting to explore masculinity. Just like Paul Schrader before him, David Hollander tries to understand the idea of masks in society. Julian as a man exists to offer comfort, comfort and companionship while Johnny hides behind a facade unable to connect with anyone. Ironically, one exists within the other and is at the same time one and the same.
That’s at the heart of this Paramount+ series, which has attracted producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Jared Leto. Faith is a strong thing, and with the presence of these people behind the project, Paramount clearly felt the risk was worth it.
Perhaps the greatest risk and revelation, however, comes in a scene that steals power from Rosie O’Donnell as Detective Sunday. A demure and uncompromising law enforcement officer who is there in the opening images reciting a brutally intimate rant to Julian. Hidden under thick glasses, a severe military haircut and gray conditioner, the comedic actor is unrecognizable.
Just as Julian is captivated by genetic advantages, Detective Sunday is constrained by her overtly buttery looks. Stripped of femininity and defined by rules and regulations, this performance is no less powerful for its restraint and immersive qualities. Needless to say, Bernthal will garner praise for his moving portrayal of fractured manhood, but O’Donnell offers something of equal caliber without the showmanship.
Aside from these powerhouses who have their own unique chemistry, American gigolo benefits from supporting players Lizzie Brochere and Wayne Brady. The former portrays a manipulative dominatrix who has a history with Julian, while the latter depicts his bedrock in good times and bad. Each effortlessly weaves an additional layer of drama into this complex series.
For viewers looking for a mature piece of contemporary drama, with all the polish, poise and precision of big screen cinema – look no further than American gigolo.
The first two episodes of American gigolo are available to stream now on Paramount+, with new episodes appearing weekly on Saturdays. Check out the trailer below.