The main character of "American Gigolo" is a shallow, materialistic parasite. This poses certain problems for the movie, since audiences don't generally "identify" with shallow, materialistic parasites -- even handsome, affluent ones.
But we aren't supposed to identify with "American Gigolo." Rather, we are supposed to keep our distance -- to think about the story, not be seduced by it. That's why the plot moves so slowly, and why the leading actors do so little acting. As a result, the film sometimes seems contrived, dull, or patently offensive. Yet it pushes relentlessly toward its ultimate message: that the saving power of love can conquer even the most outrageously misguided of lives.
In each of his major films, Paul Schrader has tried to reconcile two conflicting personality strains: the moralistic tendency inherited from his strict Calvinist upbringing, and the wish to make sensational, up-to-the-minute Hollywood entertainments.Like "Hardcore" and "Blue Collar" before it, "American Gigolo" includes cheap and vulgar elements of foul language and sexual perversity. Yet the other, more positive side of the equation is never forgotten. Despite its many excesses, this is a parable about salvation -- about a man's prolonged but eventually successful struggle to allow the forces of good into his life.
The main character is a male prostitute named Julian. His clients are wealthy, older women in the Los Angeles area. He also has a girlfriend who -- puzzlingly -- seems to love him for inner qualities that even he is not aware of. When one of his customers is murdered, all the evidence points to Julian as the killer. He is unable to clear his name, and lands in jail. Here, paradoxically, he finds true "freedom" by finally accepting the genuine, self-sacrificing love offered by his girlfriend.
The metaphors of the film are not hard to understand. Though his lifestyle is reprehensible, Julian ignores its moral implications until the law -- represented by a policeman named Sunday -- tries to thrust a sense of guilt onto him. He grapples physically the evil, embodied by a procurer whom Julian accidentally kills. In the end, a prison cell becomes a place of liberation, by forcibly separating Julian from the carnal world that has so long mired him down.
The inspiration for "American Gigolo" was clearly Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket," which has a similar ending. While Bresson's film is rarefied and undramatic, however, Schrader clutters his movie with all kinds of trendy devices, from pointless (and sexist) nudity to a howlingly mishandled suspense scene (involving a fall from a balcony) that makes you yearn for a touch of Hitchcock's technical skill. While these dubious extras may boost the picture's box-office take in some areas, they distract needed attention from the serious thoughts at the heart of the film.
Still, Schrader remains a thoughtful and intelligent director who may yet learn to "sell" his philosophical preoccupations without the lurid trappings of his latest movie. shortly before he began shooting "American Gigolo," he told me he was ready to make a major cinematic statement. The finished film falls short of its goal, but it deserves a measure of credit for reaching a lot farther than its seamy setting and R rating would imply.