A caveat: We’re appallingly susceptible to both unconventional musicals and films that demonstrate such reckless commitment to an unreasonable idea that one imagines the filmmaker spent months running from all naysayers with hands over his or her ears, shrieking "LALALALALA!" So we’re predisposed to like "Romance & Cigarettes," the third directorial effort from actor John Turturro, a Queens-bound musical that finds its far too famous cast crooning pop songs while navigating the unhappy mundanities of day to day life, having affairs, mourning marriages and enjoying a smoke (those things’ll kill you). And oh, we do like it â€” ebullient, uneven and strange as all hell, "Romance & Cigarettes" makes use of that Dennis Potterish realization that song and dance numbers and unpretty naturalism needn’t fit seamlessly together, that they might be all the more poignant for being jarringly paired, bright spots of the most theatrical legacy of movie magic daubed on a gritty, foul-mouthed portrait of working-class life.
James Gandolfini, who’s unlikely to score a record deal from this, plays ironworker Nick Murder, married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon) but having an affair with Tula (Kate Winslet), an uninhibited Scottish lingerie store worker. Kitty, having discovered Nick’s extramarital activities, has rallied her three adult daughters behind her (in one of the film’s casting mysteries, only one of the trio, Mandy Moore, could have feasibly been produced by the 46-year-old Gandolfini; Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro are both in their 40s as well) and seeks solace in the church (overseen by Eddie Izzard). Steve Buscemi is there as Nick’s dirty-minded but philosophical coworker; Christopher Walken plays Kitty’s cousin, Bo, summoned in to help her deal with Tula. There are more recognizable faces crammed in to smaller roles â€” if there is a moral to "Romance & Cigarettes," it’s that everyone wants to sing.
When they do, it’s alongside the original vocals of songs like Bruce Springsteen’s "Red Headed Woman" or Connie Francis’ "Scapricciatiello (Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me)." The best of these scenes is the first, with Gandolfini belting out Engelbert Humperdinck’s "A Man Without Love" with back-up help from twirling garbage men and neighborhood loiterers. Later, Walken performs a memorable, campy reenactment of his first love’s betrayal to "Delilah," by Tom Jones, and Winslet turns the ungainly end of a relationship into a captivating underwater number. There’s love and there’s sex and in "Romance & Cigarettes," rarely do the two meet, but most of the downtime is spent dwelling on the latter in imaginatively profane detail. The film could have benefited from less dirty talk and more character development or at least less perculiarity; there are a bewildering number of people in the film, and most go flying by, marking time with one or two aggressive quirks.
Sloppy, indulgent and heartfelt, "Romance & Cigarettes" was inspired by Turturro’s own Queens childhood, and watching the film, it seems clear that it was made more for his own enjoyment than for that of any imaginable audience. Still, we’re charmed, and hell, you’ve probably already guess if you’d be too.
"Romance & Cigarettes" opens in New York today.
+ "Romance & Cigarettes" (Film Forum)