ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (2005)
Starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Walken, Barbara Sukowa, Elaine Stritch, Eddie Izzard, Amy Sedaris, P.J. Brown, Adam LeFevre and John Turturro.
Screenplay by John Turturro.
Directed by John Turturro.
Distributed by United Artists. 106 minutes. Rated R.
2007 has been an interesting year for the movie musical. The big hits have been Dreamgirls (which came out very late last year), Hairspray and Sweeney Todd – and while they were all extremely well-done traditional Broadway adaptations, two movies which tweaked the traditions of the musical were even more intriguing.
Actually, both of these films are not from 2007, but because they were smaller and more experimental, they took a little longer to make the multiplexes (as of this writing, this film still has not gotten a proper wide release despite its star-studded cast.)
The first shot across the bow of the traditional musical was the low-key and wonderful Irish import Once, in which the traditional musical flourishes were muted for a more reserved age. Instead of the music punctuating the story, the songs essentially fueled the plotline.
While Once can whole-heartedly be embraced as a complete and total success, Romance and Cigarettes, the third directing job by acclaimed actor John Turturro is thornier. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, a bit of a mess, but a fascinating-if-flawed experience.
Romance & Cigarettes is not a traditional movie musical even in the most fundamental way – the actual songs are a series of mostly 60s easy listening pop hits, by the likes of Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Vicki Carr – with a few more modern tracks tossed in. The film often stops as the actual original pop recordings play, while the characters sing along and emote over the songs.
Only a few songs are actually sung completely by the stars – such as pop-star-turned-actress Mandy Moore doing “I Want Candy,” Aida Turturro (the director’s sister – who also played star James Gandolfini’s sister for several years in The Sopranos) emoting through “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” and Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon giving a hushed, broken version of Irving Berlin’s “The Girl I Marry.”
People have pointed out that this film takes some stylistic cues from Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven – and while that is true, I feel that Romance & Cigarettes is more reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated-but-similarly-uneven early-80s semi-musical One from the Heart.
Turturro has referred to the film as a “working-class opera,” and I guess that is as good a description you are going to get. The film tells the stories of desperation of some hard-working people in the outskirts of New York, during some vague time which could be now or the mid-60s.
Gandolfini plays Nick Murder (and don’t worry, his name is the most threatening thing about this big galloot) – an aging construction worker who has grown bored with his marriage to Susan Sarandon. He starts fantasizing about a coarse British bird (Kate Winslet having a hoot in this against-type role). His wandering eye turns his daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro), his wife’s cousin (Christopher Walken) and his mother (Elaine Stritch) against him. The only friend he has left is his slightly sex-freak friend (Steve Buscemi.)
If this seems like a pretty by-the-books storyline, then get ready to be shocked by the film’s surrealistic bent. The dialogue flips back and forth from naturally coarse to high-brow emoting. The characters almost never do what the audience expects. Fantasy sequences slip in and out without much fanfare. Whenever things get too complicated or depressing, the characters slip into fantasies of complex musical numbers.
Romance & Cigarettes is far from a perfect movie, and yet it feels at once more fascinating and occasionally frustrating for the very eccentric storytelling choices it makes. Here is a film which is not afraid to dance to its own beat and dares you to follow.
Besides, you really haven’t lived until you watch Christopher Walken emoting his way through a filmed dramatization of Tom Jones’ jealous murder ballad “Delilah.” That alone is worth the price of admission.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 31, 2007.