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Rosie O'Donnell Brightens Showtime's Otherwise Dreary American Gigolo

If only she were the show's lead.
  • Jon Bernthal and Rosie O'Donnell in American Gigolo. (Photo: Warrick Page/Showtime)
    Jon Bernthal and Rosie O'Donnell in American Gigolo. (Photo: Warrick Page/Showtime)

    Beware the up-tempo pop song that's slowed down for dramatic effect. It's almost always a sign that a show is taking the quickest route possible to "sexiness" or "danger."

    That's certainly what happens in the pilot of American Gigolo, the new Showtime series adapted from Paul Schrader's 1980 movie about a male hustler framed for murder. The movie famously featured Blondie's "Call Me" on the soundtrack, and the original, rocking version is repeated in the opening credits here. But as the first episode ends, we see a montage of Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal) roaming through his blue-lit life while a nightclub singer croons a dirgelike version of the famous tune.

    That tells you how much fun we're supposed to be having. Schrader's original film, starring a swaggering Richard Gere, is lurid and sensationalistic, which gives a jolt to its commentary on the emptiness of hedonism. The characters might be shells, and they might be hurtling to their own destruction, but their base urges still make them crackle.

    In the series, we meet Julian after he's spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. There's a convoluted story about how he's going to find the people who framed him, but unlike in the movie, there's no urgency to Julian's quest. He's already been to jail, and he's already abandoned the gigolo life that once gave him a sense of power and purpose. Now he's in an extended period of mourning, looking glumly down at the floor.

    That could be fine — Leaving Las Vegas certainly made magic out of a wild man's regrets — but American Gigolo doesn't want to be a melancholy reverie. The barrage of sex scenes and fisticuffs and shadowy lighting all scream "pulpy noir." Making sad Julian the lead of this story is like making Clarice's bookish roommate the center of Silence of the Lambs.

    This tonal mismatch is even more frustrating because Joan Sunday is right there. She's the detective who coerced Julian into confessing to the murder all those years ago, and now she knows he didn't do it. That means she's got an urgent quest to right her wrongs, and all of her scenes have a narrative drive unmatched by the rest of the show.

    Plus, Sunday's played by Rosie O'Donnell, whose natural hardass energy is perfect for the show's ostensible genre. As she casually insults people in her New York accent, you can imagine her giving hell to Jimmy Cagney.

    O'Donnell also has the zest of someone having a good time. It's there in the "I'm listening" noises she makes during conversations and the way she hustles to a suspect's front door. She even seems to unlock some wit in the rest of the creative team. When she's at the gym, the costume department puts her in old shorts and dark black socks, which tells us volumes about her home life. When she talks to a suspect over an intercom camera, she can't get her face in the frame, adding a touch of slapstick to an interrogation scene.

    All good noir has this energy — of jokes that jump from dark corners. Think of Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito's mordant wisecracks in L.A. Confidential or the bandage on Jack Nicholson's schnozz in Chinatown. If Sunday were our primary character, then American Gigolo might have this kind of pizzazz. We might not need slow Blondie, because we might be watching something with a genuine voice.

    Of course, it's pointless to review the show one wishes were on screen. The fact is that Sunday is not the lead character, and her presence, though refreshing, is besides the point. American Gigolo wants us to wade through regret and shame and sexual exploitation. Too bad it has so little to say about those things.

    The premiere epsiode of American Gigolo is available on demand for Showtime subscribers beginning Friday September 9, 2022. It airs Sunday September 11th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: American Gigolo, Showtime, Gretchen Mol, Jon Bernthal, Rosie O'Donnell