Romance & CigarettesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/07/07 01:16:10
This week sees the long-awaited release of two films that, despite the abundance of high-profile names in front of and behind the camera, have been sitting on the shelf since 2005 awaiting an American release–Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver” and John Turturro’s “Romance & Cigarettes.” In the case of “Revolver,” the extended delay is more than understandable once you actually sit through the thing as it is an attempt to boldly blend together two seemingly incompatible cinematic subgenres–a flashy crime thriller that Ritchie originally became famous for thanks to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” and a twisty psychological head-spinner in the mold of “Mulholland Drive” or “Memento”–that fails so completely that anyone who makes it to its bitter, bewildering end will find themselves wondering how anyone involved with its production could have ever thought for a second that it worked on any possible level. “Romance & Cigarettes” also tries to bring together two cinematic tastes that don’t necessarily taste great together–a lighter and more contemporary Americanized take on the Italian neo-realist movement of the 1950's and highly stylized musical-comedy romps in which the character suddenly burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat–but somehow, seemingly against all odds, it manages to pull it off and the result is a cheerfully bizarre delight for anyone open to its decidedly off-beat charms.James Gandolfini stars as Nick Murder, a construction worker who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn with wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and grown-up daughters Rosebud (Aida Turturro), Constance (Mary-Louise Parker) and Baby (Mandy Moore). However, this is apparently not enough female companionship for Nick as he has also been carrying on a torrid affair with Tula (Kate Winslet), a sultry red-headed lingerie saleswoman whose powers of seduction are enough to drive even the strongest man, which Nick is most certainly not, astray. Inevitably, Nick’s indiscretion is discovered when Kitty finds a romantic poem that he has penned in tribute to Tula, or rather, his favorite part of Tula’s considerable anatomy. As a result, the house that Nick and Kitty have shared for years becomes a sort of demilitarized zone where the two combating sides now reside in uneasy harmony. The sides are somewhat uneven since virtually everyone seems to be on Kitty’s side–her daughters, her ex-con Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), oddball neighbor Gracie (Barbara Sukowa), whose son, Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale), is carrying on a semi-clandestine romance with Baby, and even the leader of the local church choir (Eddie Izzard)–while Nick can only muster support from buddy Angelo (Steve Buscemi), whose idea of helpful advice is to tell a story about the time that an accident nearly robbed Tony Curtis of his manhood. As the battle of wills progresses, along with an unexpected engagement, a couple of medical emergencies and an ill-advised adult circumcision on Nick’s part, it appears, against all odds, that Nick and Kitty may be on the way to rediscovering the spark that brought them together in the first place.
And as strange as it may sound, all of this melodrama is related to us within the context of an all-singing, all-dancing musical. Remember Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” the delightful 1996 film that proceeded like a typical Allen comedy until the characters would suddenly burst into song when the emotions that they were feeling could no longer be contained in ordinary words? “Romance & Cigarettes” is a lot like that film, although the milieu is of a lower economic class and the musical choices recognize that there have actually been songs written since the 1940's. At the top of the film, after his infidelity has been discovered, Nick escapes the wrath of his wife and daughters by stepping out on his front porch and as we begin to hear Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love” on the soundtrack, he begins to sing along and suddenly the street is transformed into a full-blown production number complete with a chorus of dancing garbage men joining in. At other points in the film, Kitty rejoins the church choir and belts out Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as a symbol of independence, Tula uses Connie Francis’ “Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me?” to detail her feelings for Nick, Cousin Bo explains his troubled past via Tom Jones’ “Delilah” and when Kitty and Tula finally confront each other in a lingerie store smackdown, it is to the inevitable strains of “Red Headed Woman,” Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the joy that is a titan-haired temptress.
Anyone expecting something along the lines of such slickly made contemporary musicals as “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls” will probably find themselves taken aback by the deliberately rough-edged feel to “Romance & Cigarettes”–the film doesn’t utilize intricate choreography or fancy cinematic techniques in order to stage the majority of the numbers and even though most of the cast members are singing along to recordings, it is clear that most of them have not been cast for their musical prowess. (Although Walken and Sarandon have some experience with movie musicals, the closest thing to a genuine singer in the film is Mandy Moore and her only real contribution in that regard is a brief snippet of “I Want Candy” that she belts out with the garage band she has formed with her sisters and Fryburg.) And yet, the absence of slickness is one of the reasons that the film works so well because it quickly becomes evident that Turturro is less interested in making a standard Hollywood musical than he is in using the notions of the genre as a springboard for telling his own charmingly crackpot story in which people try to apply the wisdom of pop music, where any problem can not only be understood and overcome in four minutes but can rhyme at the same time, to the messiness of real life. (In many ways, the film is like a less grim version of Dennis Potter’s masterpieces “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective.”) That said, there are moments in the film where Turturro shows that he does have an eye for visual spectacle after all–the moment in which Tula dances up a storm to the strains of the Buena Vista Social Club in a red dress that outblazes the burning building she is standing in plays like what might have resulted if Frank Tashlin and Russ Meyer had ever decided to team up on a project and a later scene in which she sings Ute Lemper’s “Little Water Song” while underwater contains more grace and beauty in the two minutes or so that it lasts than “Across the Universe” did in its entire running time.
Unlike most movie musicals, especially the ones that have come along in recent years, the nonmusical moments of “Romance & Cigarettes” are just as entertaining as the ones involving singing and dancing–in fact, I am fairly certain that the film would be nearly as entertaining as it is now if all the musical numbers were suddenly stripped away. Yes, the dialogue may be deliberately arch throughout (and may remind some of the more florid excesses of the Coen Brothers, who have worked with Turturro in the past and who served as executive producers here) but somehow it doesn’t come across that way–when Nick declares “Two things a man should know how to do . . . be romantic and smoke his brains out” or when Baby announces her planned nuptials to her father by saying “Dad, I’m going into wedlock,” they sound like exactly the kinds of things that those characters would say in those situations. The performances are all excellent as well–with a cast like this, how could it be otherwise–but there are two that especially stand out. The first is Kate Winslet’s turn as Tula and while the notion of her turning in a great performance may not be the most shocking revelation, the way that she slips so effortlessly into the role of the brassy, sassy salesgirl is so extraordinary that it may take viewers a few minutes to recognize that it is really her after all. At the same time, while she is clearly having a blast playing up the tartier aspects of the character for everything they are worth (the scene in which she sits in bed in her flashy red undergarments and eats fried chicken while telling her lover exactly what he can do to her in the future is worth the price of admission all by itself), she still manages to find a certain vulnerability to the character that gives her final scenes an additional poignant edge that they might have lacked in the hands of another actress. The other standout is Elaine Stritch, who pops up late in the game as Nick’s no-nonsense mom for one scene involving her, Gandolfini and Buscemi and while I won’t give away any details about what occurs during that time, I will say that she virtually redefines the phrase “scene-stealing” with the way she comes in and just completely blows her fellow actors, who aren’t exactly shrinking violets themselves, off the screen.I will be the first to admit that “Romance & Cigarettes” isn’t perfect–there are so many characters that some (especially the daughter played by Mary-Louise Parker) wind up getting lost in the shuffle, the stuff involving the relationship between Baby and Fryburg doesn’t quite click and a last-minute confrontation between Nick and his next-door neighbors (Amy Sedaris and Adam LeFevre) is a needless distraction that comes just when things should be wrapping themselves up–and is awfully uneven at times. And yet, in the days since I have seen the film, those flaws have faded from memory while its considerable triumphs continue to ring strong and true. “Romance & Cigarettes” is a true original and if you get an opportunity to see it on the big screen for yourself (after being caught in a distribution limbo that arose after its original distributor, MGM, was bought out in 2005 by Sony, Turturro is personally distributing the film in a few cities before it hits DVD next year), you need to take it because for all its rough spots and utter weirdness, the film as a whole is something to treasure.
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