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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).


The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at


Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…