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American Gigolo Jon Bernthal’s Charisma Gets Lost in Meandering Mystery

American Gigolo Jon Bernthal’s Charisma Gets Lost in Meandering Mystery

When it was first announced that Jon Bernthal would be starring in a reimagining of Paul Schrader’s sexy ’80s crime drama American Gigolo, a collective cry went up from a very specific corner of the internet — those fans who have followed his career with great interest since his memorable turn in AMC’s The Walking Dead followed by a redefining interpretation of Frank Castle in Netflix’s Marvel series Daredevil and The Punisher. The aforementioned shows served as a promising precursor to what the role of Gigolo’s Julian Kaye could be in his hands; Bernthal has always had a knack for acting opposite his lady love interests with keen interest instead of ogling, attentiveness instead of creepiness. Even in the three seasons of television he appeared in as the Punisher, his blood-soaked mission of revenge was interspersed with tender, quieter scenes, turning Frank Castle into more of a tragic antihero than a one-note antagonist. Fortunately, when this version of American Gigolo knows how to tap into Bernthal’s talents for intimacy on-screen, it makes the most of his charm and sex appeal. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far in between, as the show more frequently succumbs to prominent (and repetitive) elements of mystery and secrets yet to be uncovered.

Unlike Schrader’s film, the small-screen American Gigolo (developed by Ray Donovan’s David Hollander) fast-forwards to the aftermath of Julian Kaye’s wrongful imprisonment for murder. The once-prominent LA gigolo has been serving a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, sporting a horseshoe mustache and acquiring an impressive number of tattoos behind bars. This weathered version of Julian (real name “Johnny”) is juxtaposed against the shaken Julian who is first hauled into jail, still covered in the blood of the woman he woke up next to, knife resting in his hand, without any real knowledge of what just happened.

It’s a distinct change of pace to see Bernthal so overwrought after other series openers dedicated to his delivery of intense and assertive monologues, like in HBO’s We Own This City from earlier this year. Here, he’s wetly sobbing, getting close to hysterical, unable to even piece together a full sentence, and that contrasts with the no-nonsense presence of Detective Jean Sunday (Rosie O’Donnell), who doesn’t buy his claims of ignorance or innocence. It’s not until she earns a deathbed confession from another criminal, 15 years later, that manages to exonerate Julian entirely. He’s a free man now, but one who has no idea where he truly belongs, and the aimlessness of his character is only reflected in the show’s first meandering episodes screened for critics, with an extreme reliance on flashbacks and non-linear storytelling that leaves you wondering how much footage was actually scripted versus cobbled together in the post-production edit.

Bernthal’s Julian is a far cry from the materialistic, self-absorbed man of past appearances; this present-day version is someone who has been humbled by his circumstances and, once freed, looking for new purpose. Although the show’s teasers would have you initially believe that his intention is to return to his original profession, to find a way back into the industry of sex work that brought him to Los Angeles in the first place, that isn’t the case at all. Whatever scenes we’re afforded with him on the job, so to speak, come in the form of the previously mentioned flashbacks — or in an opening credits montage that’s no doubt meant to evoke the feeling of the original movie and show Julian in his heyday. One can’t help but wonder what that version of the show might have looked like, with more instances of Bernthal being given screentime to flex his skills as a charmer or even a romantic figure. There are some glimmers of promise each time the series takes us back in time to show us more of the dimensions between Julian and his secret love, Michelle (Gretchen Mol) — but those are emphasized as mere whispers of the past, with any present reunion between them an impossibility due to existing complications and the fact that their relationship was somewhat forbidden in the first place.

American Gigolo could have easily succeeded as a character study simply about a male gigolo and how he navigates an ever-changing landscape of sex work in returning to his vocation. Instead, it wants to immerse itself in not just the overarching mystery of who could have framed Julian for murder all those years ago but at least one other uninteresting B-plot involving Michelle’s teenage son and her husband, the latter of whom has wealth that may have gotten them mixed up with the wrong people. This is where Hollander’s time on Ray Donovan places all the wrong influences on Gigolo’s narrative, prioritizing lackluster crime drama and cyclical storytelling over its lead’s inherent charisma. There are only so many times one can endure Bernthal walking along the beach wearing a tortured expression, intercut with yet more flashbacks to Julian-once-Johnny’s childhood, before it becomes very apparent that the plot isn’t moving in a decisive direction where its main character is concerned.

It would be one thing if Julian seemed in any way outwardly compelled to reinvigorate his life, but based on the initial three episodes, he doesn’t seem all that motivated to either return to his former career as a gigolo or unearth the truth behind his framing. Initially, he’s reunited with two people he came up through the industry alongside — the benevolent Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) and the wildly unpredictable Isabelle (Lizzie Brocheré), both of whom have their own hard-forged perspectives on sex work from their own lived experiences and make erratically different arguments for why Julian would be best-served by coming back to being an escort full-time. Meanwhile, anything having to do with Julian’s case ends up falling on the shoulders of O’Donnell, who plays Detective Sunday with a dogged yet jaded determination around her ongoing investigation, mumbling expletives at the tail-end of nearly every scene she’s in. Yet even Sunday stumbles into more evidence than she outright discovers, not so much making intentional progress in her case against the true murderer rather than inadvertently finding another piece when she least expects to.

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