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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Romance & Cigarettes (2007)

* *

Director: John Turturro
Starring: James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet

Romance & Cigarettes is one of those films that sat on the shelf for years after it was completed, waiting and waiting for release until finally writer/director John Turturro managed to release it himself, distributing it in a limited capacity in 2007. If distributors didn't quite know what to do with this film, that's understandable. It's a strange little concoction with all the marks of a labor of love, and few of the elements that might make it even marginally marketable. If it's not an entirely successful film, there can nevertheless be no doubt that a lot of passion went into it. That comes through in every frame - every crazy, weird frame, which taken all together adds up to a finished film that couldn't be anything less than divisive.

Romance & Cigarettes is a musical about a blue collar guy named Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) whose marriage to his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon) collapses when she discovers the poetry that he's written about his mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet). The battle line is immediately drawn and the two retreat to the comfort of what Nick refers to as their respective "armies," with Kitty backed up by her and Nick's daughters - Constance (Mary-Louise Parker), Rosebud (Aida Turturro), and Baby (Mandy Moore), who together play in a punk band - her cousin Bo (Christopher Walken) and parish priest Father Gene Vincent (Eddie Izzard), and Nick getting a bit of support from his co-worker, Angelo (Steve Buscemi). From there the film is, more or less, a meditation on love and relationships, with the disappointment and failure of the Murders' union contrasted by Baby's relationship with the elaborately coiffed Fryburg (Bobby Canavale), with whom she is considering "going into wedlock." The torments, hopes, and dreams of the characters are expressed mostly through song and dance numbers which feel charmingly spontaneous in that the actors can't really sing and the choreography is... let's say laissez faire. There's a disarming shagginess to Romance & Cigarettes, an earthiness that makes you want to let your guard down to it - in the first two-thirds, at least.

As it hustles down the final stretch, Romance & Cigarettes takes a turn for the dark, no longer contemplating love and sex so much as mortality. This part of the film, though it features a wonderful and fierce cameo by Elaine Stritch as Nick's mother, Grace Murder, doesn't really work in that it doesn't really fit with the rest, which revels in such unbridled lunacy that it's kind of jarring to be brought so thoroughly back down to earth. In this part of the film, Nick's decades-long smoking habit catches up with him and as he begins shuffling towards death's door, Kitty discovers her capacity for compassion which, while not necessarily enough to bring her and Nick back together for what remains of his life, is enough to allow her to bring some measure of comfort back into his life. That's more or less it for the plot; though the story takes a strange turn, it is ultimately a very simple tale: man loses wife, has an extended dark night of the soul, and emerges facing the possibility of meeting his end alone.

Romance & Cigarettes is a strange little piece of work that isn't easy to categorize. It reminds me somewhat of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, in that it feels like Turturro had a bunch of his friends over and then decided to film a movie in his backyard. It has that kind of off-the-cuff, let's put on a show feeling, which can go a surprisingly long way towards success. But, what Much Ado About Nothing had that Romance & Cigarettes lacks is a solid story, which of course Whedon can't take credit for, though he can take credit for having the good sense to set his little riff on that foundation. Romance & Cigarettes, meanwhile, feels like it was truly made up as cast and crew went along and is as wildly uneven as such a process would suggest. It careens from here to there, hitting every once in a while, but missing a lot in the process. It's a bold film, certainly, but while many great films are bold, so are many bad ones. The bad ones are films which had grand ideas but could not follow them up with great execution, and Romance & Cigarettes fits that description.

Yet, while Romance & Cigarettes doesn't ever really come together as a film, it does have quite a bit to its credit. Actors like Gandolfini and Sarandon are basically always good even when the material isn't quite up to their level, and this film is no exception. Meanwhile, Winslet and Walken basically walk away with the whole show, stealing scene after scene. For Walken, this is more or less expected, as the film is so strange that the second he shows up, you know that he's going to do his thing and fit in perfectly and that's exactly what happens (the numbers in which he sings and dances very nearly elevate the whole film to another level). But Winslet plays drastically against type as a vulgar tart who confesses to Nick that she's attracted to him precisely because she finds him unattractive ("I think you're dead sexy. Not at first, then one day I looked up and saw you working with your shirt off and your gut out. That's a man, I said to myself. A real man.") and in doing so she gives one of her most interesting and best character performances to date. While none of this is enough to make me really recommend Romance & Cigarettes in terms of putting an effort into going out and finding it to watch, it is enough to make me recommend the film if you happen across it on TV during the course of a lazy Sunday.

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