Romance and Cigarettes (2007) dir. John Turturro
Starring: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, Christopher Walken
There were several traditional musicals last year, including "Sweeney Todd", "Hairspray", "Across the Universe", but none that compares to the inspired creative energy, enthusiasm and originality of "Romance and Cigarettes". This little seen film which sat on a shelve for a year before a quick and dirty release is an absolute gem, and needs to be discovered on DVD. While watching the film and in between fits of laughter I tried to think of comparison films to help me in this review. But few came to mind. It's a wholly original surreal, comedy, drama, pop musical, tragic, perverse mongrol of a film.
The story revolves around the depressed life of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini). He's a blue collar labourer who rivets bolts atop a NYC suspension bridge. He's currently having an affair with Tula (Kate Winslet) a beautiful lingeries saleswoman with foul and dirty tongue. Nick's wife Kitty, (Susan Sarandon) has suspicions of adultery and hires her highly quotable singing and dancing cousin Bo (Christopher Walken) to investigate. Meanwhile, Nick and Tula's three daughters, Baby, Constance and Rosebud (Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker, Aida Turturro) have a backyard rock band and have courted the neighbourhood hunk Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) as the singer. But when Baby falls in love with him, it disrupts the family and splits up the group.
There is no template or genre for a film like this. It exists in it's own universe. There's shades of "Strictly Ballroom", "Wild at Heart", "Little Shop of Horrors" and Federico Fellini. The Coen Bros' names are attached, perhaps because of their longest working friendship with Turturro, but since Turturro serves as writer/director I suspect this feature is of lifetime labour of love. And the evidence is on the screen.
The only tone I could put my finger on was "inspired organized randomness". Characters operate as if from different movies, different worlds and speaking different languages. Like a traditional musical characters will often express their emotions in song, aided by the other actors and background players around them. But the songs are not original broadway-style showtunes, instead it's pop music from James Brown to Englebert Humperdinck to Buena Vista Social Club, sometimes the characters sing with the actual song in the background, sometimes it's solo, sometimes it's not. Turturro makes up his rules as he goes along, as a result the film never settles into predictability.
At one point Steve Buscemi's character looks out the window and sees three men chasing a baby calf down the city turnpike.
Every character is a scene stealer - James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon ground the film, but even they aren't spared the Turturro character-ringer. After a casual reference by his mistress, Nick becomes obsessed with circumscision and in one of the most squirm-inducing scenes actually goes through with the procedure. Their three sisters are the most unlikely trio of siblings ever put to film, not only do they look completely different, Mandy Moore is 23, Mary-Louise Parker is 43 and Aida Turturro is 46! Bobby Cannavale is like an Elvis impersonator on amphetimines and Christopher Walken sings, dances and speaks in movies quotes and hyperbole.
The film only suffers in the final act when it loses some its trampoline steam. The film settles down into a traditional drama, giving us a tragic ending which doesn't befit the joyful exhuberance of the first two thirds. But the film remains a special undefinable film, which will take years to find it's audience. It's no wonder the film sat on the shelf for so long. The marketing heads still don't know what to make of the film. I don't either, and I don't really want to. Just sit back and enjoy.
"Romance and Cigarettes" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment