- Rated R
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All photos © United Artists
Reviewed by Bob Westal
s maybe the only men’s magazine reviewer who is also an outspoken fan of film musicals, I’m still not sure what to make of the genre’s apparent resurgence. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s an actual resurgence or a series of mutations, a Darwinian attempt to adapt the musical for survival in a rapidly changing environment. “Romance & Cigarettes” is one of those mutations. It’s not quite stillborn, but don’t expect it to produce viable offspring.
Written and directed by actor John Turturro (with an “executive produced” assist from Joel and Ethan Coen), “Romance & Cigarettes” brings us James Gandolfini as someone completely unlike Tony Soprano. Well, somewhat unlike Tony Soprano. He’s Nick Murder (yes, Nick Murder), a New York construction worker, who despite his name has apparently never killed anyone outside of wartime. Not that he’s without sin. He’s an unfaithful husband prone to slaughtering ‘60s pop classics by singing along with such recordings as Engelbert Humperdinck’s irresistible “Lonely is a Man Without Love.”
As our story begins, Nick’s wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), discovers a pornographic love note to Nick’s unbelievably horny cockney girlfriend, Tula (Kate Winslet). This sets off a chain of strange and illogical behaviors among the entire Murder clan, including Kitty’s rockabilly hipster cousin Bo (Christopher Walken, the only human on earth insane enough to actually inhabit this film); two biological daughters (Mandy Moore and Mary-Louise Parker); and, just to keep things good and weird, an adopted daughter played by Aida Turturro, who played Tony Soprano’s slightly younger sister, Janice. And, just in case we’re likely to forget about the Sopranos, Steve Buscemi shows up as Nick’s construction worker pal.
Say what you will about “Romance & Cigarettes,” it swings for the fences. Being great requires rolling the dice and taking the risk of being awful. The movie is not exactly dull, even as those artistic risks come up snake-eyes time and time again. The musical numbers (in which the characters sing along semi-audibly, rather than lip-sync or sing for themselves), largely come across as inferior variations on the imaginative numbers in Dennis Potter’s lip-synced tragi-musicals, “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective.”
The only exception is Christopher Walken’s take on Tom Jones’ “Delilah.” It’s not a great piece of musical cinema, but Walken, the massively talented dancer, is as comfortable here as he is lecturing a kid about the unsanitary history of a pocket watch. The rest of this superb cast, though game, can’t quite measure up to Walken’s mad musical-comedy skills. Mostly they’re just treading water, trying to make headway with Turturro’s unbelievably awkward, quasi-poetic dialogue.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of if its 105 minutes, this aggressively quirky, often pretentious mishmash of kitchen-sink family drama and surrealist nonsense, is simply annoying. And, for whatever reason, the dialogue and plot centers mostly around penises and vaginas, with an unfortunate emphasis on the former. (In pursuit of a more pleasing phallus, Nick Murder decides to get a late-life circumcision.) At times, it seems as if John Turturro suffers from the same obsession that drove poor Jonah Hill in “Superbad,” only without the phallocentric homages to “Jaws” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
It’s not all horrible. Just mostly. There are some great recordings being sung along with here. I especially dug hearing Dusty Springfield’s relatively obscure version of the pop-blues classic “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.” And, in the last 15 minutes, the film and its characters finally remember that dicks and pussies are just two of many important organs. For a few minutes, it’s a nice, melancholy, unremarkable family drama.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
This Sony DVD comes with a decent assortment of extras, starting with a brief video introduction underlining just how tired Turturro must have been after finishing the film and his sincere desire that we, the audience, like his film. (Sorry I couldn’t help with that part.) Next up is a documentary, appropriately titled “Making a Homemade Musical” featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Turturro and his distinguished and fun-loving cast. Unfortunately, fairly standard promo-style telephone interviews with Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet are laid awkwardly over the footage; it’s an odd choice that only detracts from what we’re seeing.
The deleted scenes are, as usual, deleted for good reason. However, Turturro’s interstitial comments between scenes are revealing. Both here and in the commentaries, it becomes evident that Joel and Ethan Coen were fairly hands-on executive producers, who offered some good advice (though the best advice of all might have been to bring in another writer to snap the screenplay into shape).
Just to underline the “homemade” feeling of “Romance and Cigarettes,” Turturro is joined on the audio commentary by his teenage son, Amadeo Turturro, who appears very briefly in the film. (Both the original “Romance” screenplay and Amadeo began gestating while the elder Turturro was filming the Coens’ “Barton Fink” in 1991). Although traditionalists might wince listening to a dad casually discussing a film chock full of explicit sexual dialogue with his 14-year-old son — and Turturro even seems mildly embarrassed towards the end of the commentary — he comes off like very much like the stable, ultra-cool dad you’d expect John Turturro to be, while young Amadeo seems extremely bright and mature-beyond-his-years. It’s not an especially revealing or exciting commentary, but it is nice.