In retrospect, Paul Schrader's paean to perms, pimps, and playboy peccadillos seems like the first instant of the 1980s. Even while the subject matter remains steeped in a depraved '70s milieu, Richard Gere practices the kind of casual materialism and wears the kind of pastel Miami Vice fashion that confirms the arrival of that decade. The result is a zeitgeist film balancing on a tight rope between one world of underground lairs and street hustles, and another of high-priced hotels and sprawling swimming pools. Even when Julian struts and strides, confidently burning bridges and flaunting his business acumen, all the while enjoying the fruits of his labors, the sword of Damocles is visible over his head. He's ready for the free enterprise of the 1980s, but the debts of the 1970s hold him back -- in more ways than he anticipated. Always good at documenting seedy underbellies, Schrader continued in that vein two years after writing Taxi Driver (and two years before Raging Bull), even if his agenda sometimes softens to lukewarmness, especially in the unfulfilling finish. This film also announced Gere as a handsome new star to be reckoned with, worth more than John Travolta's sloppy seconds. The other lingering impression is the genial malevolence of the pimp created by character actor Bill Duke; his is a simmering presence. American Gigolo is one of the best-known early efforts from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and one of the last not to make a serious chunk of change at the box office.
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A slick Los Angeles callboy finds love and redemption in Paul Schrader's ultra-stylish drama. High-living prostitute Julian Kay (Richard Gere, stepping in for John Travolta) has it all: the Mercedes, the clothes, access to Beverly Hills' swankiest establishments, and a stable of rich, older female clients. But it all falls apart after he does a favor for his former pimp (Bill Duke) and the trick turns up dead a short while later; Julian's actual client won't give him an alibi, and police detective Sunday (Hector Elizondo) doesn't believe the gigolo's denials. The one person who can help him is frustrated politician's wife (and sole non-paying bedmate) Michelle (Lauren Hutton), if only Julian could let down his defenses and accept her gesture of love. Mixing his admiration for European art cinema with a voyeuristic view of the seamier side of sex and affluence, Schrader renders Julian an inscrutable, emotionally disengaged purveyor of pleasure, decked out in Giorgio Armani clothes coordinated with Ferdinando Scarfiotti's meticulous production design. Amid critical doubts about its artiness and distanced eroticism, American Gigolo surprised everyone by not dying on the box office vine. With some audiences reportedly showing up for repeat viewings of Gere's seductive charms, it became a moderate hit, turning Gere into a star and Armani into the new fashion sensation. Whatever reservations one may have about the movie, it provided two indelible images of 1980s decadence to come: Gere's perusing his "artist's palette" of shirts, ties, and jackets, and Gere's cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in his convertible to the New Wave strains of Blondie's "Call Me."
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