The Reeler


September 7, 2007

Romance and Cigarettes

Turturro's long-delayed musical a staunchly heterosexual take on John Waters

Romance and Cigarettes was shelved for over two years by Sony Pictures, and it’s not hard to see why the suits were skittish. John Turturro’s third directorial effort is willfully bizarre, an incredibly horny musical structured around the elaborate fantasies of Queens construction worker Nick Murder (James Gandolfini). The object of his id’s desire is Tula (Kate Winslet), a foul-mouthed, red-haired tart, introduced as a gyrating siren literally burning down her building as the firemen waltz with their hoses. Murder’s wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) quickly smokes out the affair, their marital breakdown laid out in musical montages that swing from gleeful absurdity to earnest sentimentality. It’s like a staunchly heterosexual version of a John Waters movie.

According to The New York Times, Turturro’s pitch to MGM (later absorbed by Sony) described the film as “The Honeymooners meets The Singing Detective”, and the comparison holds up, at least on the surface. The working class milieu and Gandolfini’s good-natured agitation channel Jackie Gleason’s landmark work, and the use of popular songs, both lip-synched and sung by the actors, was a technique pioneered by Dennis Cooper in Detective (1986) and his earlier BBC series, Pennies From Heaven (1978).

But Romance’s tone, along with its sexual frankness, diverges wildly from both as it proceeds with barely-contained hysteria, fueled by the can-you-top-this ham of the energized cast. Steve Buscemi goes for blue-collar non-sequiturs (“I’d like to fuck a women’s tennis player”), while Christopher Walken amuses himself with his pompadour and rambling monologues (“Roe ... was my first love, I traced her name in cow shit...”). Other notables include Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro and Mandy Moore as Murder’s aging children, and a fabulous turn by Elaine Stritch as his castrating mother (“There’s more to life than a hard-on”). Bobby Cannavale tops them all, however, as the Travolta/James Brown wannabe Fryburg, his Lycra-ed crotch thrusting heartily into every frame.

Suffice it to say the film’s pleasures are scattershot; the narrative is barely there, a hook to support the spectacle of Gandolfini singing Englebert Humperdinck’s “Lonely is the Man Who Loves,” Walken lip-synching to Tom Jones' “Delilah” and Sarandon knocking out the local grocer with a tree stump. When the spectacle fails or there‘s plot to advance, tedium sets in, as there’s no emotional undertow to carry the viewer through the various lulls in character development.

This becomes especially clear when the kitschy posturing segues into a family melodrama during the third act, a jarring shift that Turturro isn’t entirely able to overcome despite some deft tonal softshoeing by the two leads. Sarandon and Gandolfini do their best work at a kitchen table, tremulously croaking a favorite tune from their youth, sung without the original backing track. It’s the only instance in Romance and Cigarettes where the pop song serves the characters instead of the reverse, revealing a depth of feeling that seems to come from a different movie.

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