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“Romance & Cigarettes”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: John Turturro’s “Romance & Cigarettes,” 2007]

In his unorthodox new film, “Romance & Cigarettes,” director John Turturro takes an unconventional approach to the musical, one of the most conventional of genres. Deeply felt, but not especially deep, it works best at its most passionate, which could probably be said of most other musicals as well. But most other musicals don’t also include shockingly vulgar language, dancing garbage men, pencil-thin mustaches and the most sexualized fire hose in cinema history.

The road to American theaters has been a hard one for “Romance & Cigarettes,” as it often is for movies this eccentric. Owned by United Artists, it premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival, but found itself in a Miramax-esque purgatory for two years following Sony Pictures’ acquisition of UA. Though the film has an incredible cast of bankable stars, including James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken, it’s never gotten any sort of domestic distribution. Even now, it’s opening in just one theater, New York City’s Film Forum, after Turturro convinced Sony to allow him to release the picture himself.

Despite its charms, it’s easy to see why “Romance & Cigarettes” might make a conglomerate a bit skittish. Though audiences have shown a renewed interest in Hollywood musicals, those films tend to be made of glossier, less confrontational stuff than this. They also tend to return the genre to its earliest cinematic form, as chronicles of backstage dramas taking place around the making of a show or concert. The characters in “Romance & Cigarettes” aren’t performers: they’re salt-of-the-earth types like construction workers, police officers and homemakers. And when they burst into song to reveal their innermost desires and fears, they don’t sound like performers, either. This is not a Jennifer Holliday-esque coming out party for the mellifluous vocals of James Gandolfini, I can tell you that much.

Gandolfini, whose casting and vocal range bring to mind the sight of Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” plays Nick Murder, an unhappy family man living in Queens with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and his three daughters. The casting of said daughters is one of Turturro’s weirdest choices: he’s got the age-appropriate Mandy Moore, but he filled the other two parts with Mary-Louise Parker, who’s just three years younger than Gandolfini, and Aida Turturro who, you may recall, played Mr. Murder’s sister on five seasons of “The Sopranos.” And so Nick must deal with typical teenage rebellion coming from the atypical form of a middle-aged woman.

Nick’s having an affair (with a fiery-haired Kate Winslet) and his relationship with Kitty is in trouble. “Marriage is combat, soldier,” he tells another character. “And not clean combat.” In other moments, he’s less philosophical. He talks about “wet vaginas” and even drops the t-word into conversation (that word’s so dirty, even I won’t type it here, but it rhymes with a movie starring Colin Farrell and Samuel L. Jackson).

Most classic musicals are about the way people fall in love. “Romance & Cigarettes,” with its obsession with coarse language — sample dialogue from Steve Buscemi’s character: “I like to fuck a woman with a behind as big as the world!” — and infidelity plotline, is more about the way people cope with the reality of a world depressingly lacking in love (hence the particular appropriateness of the Engelbert Humperdinck tune “A Man Without Love,” which serves as Nick’s theme). Other musicals, from “West Side Story” to “The Blues Brothers,” have forsaken the traditional confines of a soundstage for real city streets, but Turturro has stripped off whatever remaining varnish still coated those frames. The language, the visuals and the literally cancerous ending all burst with raw reality. Yet Turturro juxtaposes all of that with over-the-top musical numbers featuring backup dancers who writhe for the camera with wild abandon. It’s like a John Waters version of Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York.”

There’s no denying the visceral pleasure one gets from the incongruous sight of a mustachioed Gandolfini belting songs in between trips to the urologist, or of Kate Winslet performing a number underwater like a mermaid trollop. But this is not the sort of pleasure that’s going to transmit widely and to all people. You kind of have to be as nutty as John Turturro to appreciate it. “Romance & Cigarettes” is unique; but then so was “Myra Breckinridge,” and that nearly killed the studio that released it. No wonder Sony didn’t want to touch the thing.

“Romance & Cigarettes” opens in New York on September 7th (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.