'American Gigolo' review: Jon Bernthal shines in classy adult drama

Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal) in American Gigolo (Paramount+)
Julian Kaye (Jon Bernthal) in American Gigolo (Paramount+) (Warrick Page/SHOWTIME)

With crime drama American Gigolo (streaming on Paramount+ from 10 September) debates around masculinity, gender identity and sexual desire are given a contemporary twist.

David Hollander (Ray Donovan) heads up this remake, drawing on characters created by Paul Schrader from his film of the same name starring Richard Gere. However in this incarnation that role — which did so much to make Gere a household name — comes to Jon Bernthal who hits a home run from minute one as Julian Kaye.

What becomes apparent in those opening minutes is that David Hollander respects his source material; American Gigolo is one of several seminal works from Paul Schrader, which ranks alongside Taxi Driver and The Card Counter as films which explore masculinity.

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As a maverick of mainstream cinema who counts Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola amongst his contemporaries, he still continues to shape cinema today.

Johnny (Gabriel LaBelle) in American Gigolo (Paramount+)
Johnny (Gabriel LaBelle) in American Gigolo (Paramount+) (Patrick Wymore/SHOWTIME)

In terms of American Gigolo, creator David Hollander is savvy enough to only tweak that formula slightly for a new generation where attitudes towards the objectification of others no longer comes with concrete boundaries. Here ex-convicts can no longer take up where they left off seducing women for money.

Told through a combination of flashbacks, American Gigolo bounces between past and present anchored by Bernthal’s Julian and Gabriel LaBelle’s younger incarnation. The latter perfectly complimenting his older incarnation, as audiences experience defining moments that shape this person. It is in these opening episodes that American Gigolo presents an agenda to audiences which some may find hard to take.

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Although the central premise focuses on finding those responsible for framing Julian, following his release from jail after fifteen years, what American Gigolo really seeks to explore is everything Paul Schrader sought answers for over forty years ago.

Although the sexual landscape may have changed, issues of identity remain just as ambiguous, while discussions of identity relate to so such more than just biology.

Michelle Stratton (Gretchen Mol) in American Gigolo (Paramount+)
Michelle Stratton (Gretchen Mol) in American Gigolo (Paramount+) (Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME)

Alongside Bernthal as Julian, Gretchen Mol steps into the shoes of former client Michelle Stratton, forming the only genuinely loving relationship on screen. Between them there is a tenderness and understanding which is missing from her connection with husband Richard (Leland Orser). However, after his fifteen-year hiatus things have moved on and she has a teenage son, who ironically loves a teacher more than his own family.

As Julian adjusts to life on the outside, memories are triggered through chance encounters with old friends, certain clothes in shop windows or more poignantly a return home. A place where dilapidated trailer parks face each other, while formative flashbacks explain where his attitudes to sex first formulated.

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Gifted with attributes which made him an attractive proposition for women of all ages, this is where American Gigolo really starts exploring masculinity. Just as Paul Schrader before him, David Hollander seeks to understand the idea of masks within society. Julian as a man exists to provide solace, comfort and companionship, while Johnny hides beneath a façade incapable of connecting with anyone. Ironically, one exists within the other and are one and the same simultaneously.

Detective Sunday (Rosie O'Donnell) in American Gigolo (Paramount+)
Detective Sunday (Rosie O'Donnell) in American Gigolo (Paramount+) (Warrick Page/SHOWTIME)

That is what lies at the heart of this Paramount+ series, which has attracted producers including Jerry Bruckheimer and Jared Leto. Belief is a powerful thing and with the presence of these people behind the project, Paramount clearly felt the risk was worthwhile.

However, perhaps the greatest risk and revelation is a scene stealing performance from Rosie O’Donnell as Detective Sunday. A brittle and uncompromising enforcement officer, who is there in the opening frames delivering a savagely intimate diatribe to Julian. Concealed beneath thick glasses, a severe military haircut and grey rinse the comedic actor is unrecognisable.

As much as Julian is trapped by genetic advantages, Detective Sunday is confined by her overtly butch appearance. Stripped of femininity and defined through rules and regulations, this performance is no less powerful for its restraint and immersive qualities. Needless to say, plaudits will fall to Bernthal for delivering a moving portrayal of fractured masculinity, but O’Donnell offers something of equal calibre without the showmanship.

Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) in American Gigolo (Paramount+)
Lorenzo (Wayne Brady) in American Gigolo (Paramount+) (Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME)

Aside from these powerhouse performances which possess their own unique chemistry, American Gigolo benefits from supporting players Lizzie Brochere and Wayne Brady. The former portraying a manipulative dominatrix who has history with Julian, while the latter represents his bedrock through good times and bad. Each one weaving an additional layer of drama into this complex series effortlessly.

For audiences who are after an adult slice of contemporary drama, with all the polish, poise and precision of great cinema — look no further than American Gigolo.

The first two episodes of American Gigolo are available to stream on Paramount+ now, with new episodes dropping weekly on Saturdays. Watch the trailer below.