By Matt Singer
[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).