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Showtime's 'American Gigolo' sequel lacks the highfalutin glitz of the original

Gretchen Mol and Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye star in Showtime's <em>American Gigolo. </em>
Warrick Page
Gretchen Mol and Jon Bernthal as Julian Kaye star in Showtime's American Gigolo.

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 amorality, it offered the pounding beat of Blondieperforming "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 — 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.

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. In France artists are protected by the so-called droit moral, or moral right, which means 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'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 that 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.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.