ROMANCE & CIGARETTES
With Romance & Cigarettes, John Turturro attempts to remake the movie musical. Remember Herbert Ross’ remake of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, wherein actors lip-synched along to pop records of the 1930s? Here, Turturro has his cast singing along to 1950s-era vinyl, although his film is set in the present day and, it should be admitted, is not half as successful as Ross’ was.
The life of construction worker Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) becomes a nightmare when his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) discovers he has a British mistress, the overtly hotblooded Tula (Kate Winslet). Kitty’s three daughters, Baby (Mandy Moore), Constance (Mary-Louise Parker) and Rosebud (Aida Turturro), rally around her in excoriation of Nick, and, with the help of Elvis-fan Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken, bizarre for a change), Kitty tracks down Tula with revenge on her mind.
On this sliver of a plot, Turturro hangs his self-described “down-and-dirty musical,” which lives up to that description with its incessantly scatological language and gritty sexual situations. It all might have been more effective had there been more variation, but nuance is a foreigner to Turturro, who pitches things at ever-more screeching levels of vulgarity. “You are one coarse broad,” Nick says at one point to potty-mouthed nympho Tula, but, given the fact that Kitty and her girls, in their first scene, call him “Whoremaster!” and shriek a succession of vivid epithets for female genitalia at him, you merely think, “What’s the diff?” If Turturro had a real gift for dirty talk, like David Mamet, or, less exaltedly, Rob McCittrick, who made the hilarious, much-maligned Waiting, this could have been diverting, but his notions more often have a bewildering, empty ring to them, as when Kitty brays, “You must think I’m the cucumber in the gardener’s ass!”
The song choice is also problematical. Al Martino’s “Lonely Is a Man Without Love” and Tom Jones’ “Delilah” are not the tunes I would necessarily put on any iPod and, it should be admitted, Sarandon was never a great singer, even back in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and to hear her wail Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” is pure eardrum torture. Although some of the choreography is amusing, as when a crew of blue-collar guys suddenly break out into jazz-hands on a suburban street, the idea of having everyone sing along to these largely deservedly forgotten records results in a kind of sub-Fellini karaoke hell. When Nick decides to improve his sexual game by getting a circumcision, which Turturro turns into yet another hysterical set-piece, you may well find yourself looking for the exit sign.
Through it all, Gandolfini amazingly retains a vulnerable appeal, perhaps because Nick, for all his splashy confusion, is the sanest person onscreen, going through a highly identifiable mid-life crisis. Winslet has a field day with a thick burr of an accent, saying the vilest things, and enjoys the film’s one quiet, lovely moment: an underwater sequence, in which she really does lip-synch, with her torrents of red hair wafting gracefully around her face. The rest of Turturro’s large, impressively varied cast does their cartoonish thing, playing virtual cartoons.
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