DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One of the raciest and glossiest films of the 1980s was "American Gigolo," which starred Richard Gere as a high-end male escort in Los Angeles. This weekend, Showtime is releasing a new TV series based on that famous movie, a daring project that has many wondering if it's a good idea. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, rushed to see the first three episodes. He says they aren't at all what he expected.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When I was growing up, remakes, sequels and prequels were considered slightly dodgy - either a money grab or an admission that one didn't have the chops to be original. These days, they're what the world seems to embrace, be it "Top Gun: Maverick," "House Of The Dragon" or "Better Call Saul." The latest case is the Showtime series "American Gigolo." It's a sequel to Paul Schrader's hit 1980 movie, which starred Richard Gere as Julian Kay, a high-end LA escort who gets framed for murder only to be redeemed by the love of a good woman played by Lauren Hutton.
As it mixed potboiler material with ideas of religious transcendence, the film was often silly. But it was also memorable. Bristling with expensive production-designed immorality, it offered the pounding beat of Blondie performing "Call Me," the image of Julian's closet bursting with Armani clothing - the movie helped launch that brand in America - and the sight of Gere dishing up the first full-frontal nude scene by a male star in a studio film.
"American Gigolo" was one of those Hollywood classics that became mythic without being particularly good. Aside from its title, there's nothing remotely mythic about the new series, which transfers Julian's story into the 21st century. Where Schrader created a deliberately opaque, metaphorical fantasy, the show's creator, David Hollander, takes a more literal-minded approach. He fiddles with the original plot, trading in highfalutin glitz for explanatory backstory and a conventional murder mystery.
The action begins when Julian, now played by the excellent actor Jon Bernthal, is exonerated for a murder he didn't commit and gets released from prison after 15 years. Wiser and worn, Julian doesn't want to return to his slinky old life. He wants to live clean. Though, he's also eager to find out who set him up for the murder. This means getting back in touch with people from his gigolo days - his handler, Olga, who got him into the business, his escort pal, Lorenzo, and his old lover, Michelle Stratton. That's Gretchen Mol in the Hutton role, whose son is heading into serious trouble. Predictably, Julian's return stirs things up. Soon, there's another murder. And before he knows it, a police detective, oddly played by Rosie O'Donnell, looks eager to pin it on him. Nobody seems willing to help Julian, including his old flame, Michelle. Here, he goes to her fancy house to see her and make sure that she knows he's never killed anyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN GIGOLO")
JON BERNTHAL: (As Julian) I wanted you to know that I didn't hurt that girl, Elle. you were right.
GRETCHEN MOL: (As Michelle) You can't be here.
BERNTHAL: (As Julian) I know. I understand.
MOL: (As Michelle) I have a son.
BERNTHAL: (As Julian) Hey. Whoa (laughter). That's beautiful. That - what's his name?
MOL: (As Michelle) Colin. He's in a lot of trouble. You being here will only make it worse.
POWERS: When I heard that they were turning "American Gigolo" into a series, I was curious but dubious. Schrader himself has called the project a terrible idea. But no matter - he doesn't own the rights to the characters. Now, in France, artists are protected by the so-called droit moral - or moral right - which means that you can't take their creations and do with them what you will. But this is America, so the series was made anyway, taking Julian Kaye's story in a direction that Schrader - a complicated, genuinely fascinating man - would surely find banal. Even as Julian's backstory involves a strange abuse narrative - the show's shot through with a startling misogyny - he himself becomes muted. Where Gere exuded a smug, plasticine perfection - he came from seemingly nowhere like a sexy android - Bernthal's weathered Julian is weighed down by regrets and confusion. He has none of the pop zing that made Julian a cultural touchstone.
One reason "American Gigolo" resonated in 1980 was that Schrader caught the direction of American culture before most people did. Indeed, the film's rapt attention to money, consumerism and spiritual emptiness made it the first of many Reagan-era morality plays, one that actually came out nine months before Reagan was even elected. It remains an emblem of its time. I can't imagine this will happen with the TV series, which relies too much on people knowing and caring about a movie that was made four decades ago. Then again, maybe this new "American Gigolo" does capture our current American mood. It's the story of a once cocksure man who now wears T-shirts and drives a borrowed convertible he can't begin to afford. As Julian looks back on his often glittering past, he wonders exactly what happened to his life and how it all went wrong.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new Showtime series, "American Gigolo."
(SOUNDBITE OF BLONDIE SONG, "CALL ME")
DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed - like our conversation with tennis great John McEnroe, or with singer-songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires, who shares some songs with Terry - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")
BLONDIE: (Singing) Color me your color, baby. Color. me your car. Color me your color, darling. I know who you are. Come up off your color chart. I know where you're coming from. Call me - call me - on the line. Call me, call me any, anytime. Call me - call me - I'll arrive. You can call me any day or night. Call me.
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")
BLONDIE: (Singing) Call me, call me, on the line. Call me, call me any, anytime. Call me, call me, I'll arrive. When you're ready, we can share the wine. Call me. Ooh, he speaks the languages of love. Ooh, amore, chiamami, chiamami. Ooh, appelle-moi mon cheri, appelle-moi. Anytime. Anyplace. Anywhere. Any way. Anytime. Anyplace. Anywhere. Any day. Any way. Call me in my life...
(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.