Somebody clearly likes Dennis Potter.
I am a sucker for aggressively artificial movies, musicals in particular, just to clear the air right away. So I'm well aware that most people aren't going to like Romance & Cigarettes remotely so much as I did. It's a wavelength thing, as usual: either you'll find John Turturro's free-spirited "fuck off" to realism and causality invigorating, or you'll find it contrived. Or, y'know, something in the middle, but here at Antagony & Ecstasy we do not recognise this concept of a "middle."
And as an aesthetic extremist, let me gush: Romance & Cigarettes is one of the most inventive, surprising and challenging American films of 2005. Pity that it's 2007. See, the film was considered "unmarketable" and got stuck on the United Artists shelf during that company's corporate changeover to Sony (though it received distribution in Europe). Eventually, Turturro got so frustrated at waiting that he paid for an extremely modest run out of his own pocket, spurring UA into announcing a DVD release for February '08.
This horribly unmarketable project is the story of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a New York construction worker with a put-upon wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), three daughters (Aida Turturro, Mary-Louise Parker and Mandy Moore), and a vivacious red-headed British mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet). Though not an immoral man, Nick is cursed by a profound lack of self-reflection, and so he is unable to stop his marriage and his life from collapsing as a result of his indulgent activities. Throughout the film, when he, his family, his lover or his friends find themselves unable to deal with the miseries of their situation, they retreat into pop music, crudely singing along to an oldies soundtrack in their mind that comments, Greek chorus style, on the story. And it's FUNNY!
At least, sometimes it's funny.
The film was co-produced by Joel & Ethan Coen, the directors who gave Turturro-the-actor the best roles in his career, and it has some of the same sensibilities of their work: beyond the family at its core, Romance & Cigarettes has a motley collection of bent characters: Kitty's
cousin/'50s throwback Bo (Christopher Walken), crazy wannabe rocker exhibitionist Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) and Nick's co-worker Angelo (Coen mainstay Steve Buscemi), a dim little man prone to sexually bombastic non-sequiturs.
None of these characters are necessarily recognisably "human," nor for that matter are Tula or the Murder children - Moore is a helpless romantic, Parker is an identity-changing punk rocker, Aida Turturro is...I'm tempted to call her a mentally-handicapped fairy princess...and the idea that the three are sisters or the children of Gandolfini and Sarandon is incomprehensible - but none of these figures are at the core of the drama. Nick and Kitty are the protagonists, and they alone need to bear the emotional weight of the film. Gandolfino plays the role a bit too close to Tony Soprano for comfort, but otherwise he and Sarandon are more than admirable; they both play small, powerfully un-quirky figures, if a bit melodramatic. Getting through the field of crazies surrounding them (if indeed "getting through" is what we're supposed to do) isn't the easiest thing in the world, whether because those crazies are colorful or distracting, but as the emotional center of a candy-colored fantasy, I was honestly moved.
The purest delight of the film isn't the drama, of course, but the use of music. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to observe that this is rather similar to the British miniseries Pennies from Heaven, especially given the presence of Walken, who had a small role in the 1981 film version of that story. But if you're going to steal an idea, stealing from Dennis Potter is about as safe as you're going to get. And Turturro's film is much more joyful than his influence - in that miniseries, the musical numbers were as clumsy and unpolished as the protagonist, while in Romance & Cigarettes, the numbers are much more playful. Not "MGM in the '40s" or "Berkeley in the '30s" levels of playfulness, mind you, but there's plenty of energy, for the low-key working-class mise en scène.
Hey, you know what? These are the internets, and I can do things like this:
(of course, YouTube videos tend to die whenever I link to them, so let's see how long this lasts).
Consider that clip. It is not an elaborate thing, but the people involved are not elaborate. And the choreography, such as it is, honors the setting: the places and people that Nick sees every day are the framework of his fantasy. That's a little bit sad, and it's also kind of affecting. Nick's dreams are modest and humble, and he still, in the end, fucks them up.
The review is actually done now: if you did not like that number, you will not enjoy Romance & Cigarettes. But indulge me in a few thoughts on the cast and crew: besides Gandolfini and Sarandon, who carry the film on their shoulders, the standout is Kate Winslet, mostly unrecognisable in bright red hair, trashy lingerie and make-up, and a north country accent that sounds like rubbing a cat on a blackboard. No-one is bad, though, although some performers are simply given less to do, some hardly more than cameos, such as Elaine Stritch who is perfection embodied, but only in one scene.*
Meanwhile, Turturro's direction reveals him to be more of an "ideas man" than a filmmaker - the film's look is authentically gritty but not terribly unique, although Tom Stern, Clint Eastwood's current cinematographer, composes and lights a fine frame. Most of the film's energy comes from what is happening on-screen, and not from the particular way in which it is presented to us (in that clip, perhaps you noticed what I did, that the editing sort of strains for meaning, cutting almost at whim; it doesn't improve and there are a handful of uncomfortably continuity errors late in the movie). But all this doesn't mean that the energy isn't there.
Really, the only flaw that I'd say materially damages the film is its finale, which spins on a bit too long and repeats itself. The final scene is strong, but the path getting there is a bit tedious, particularly because of the relative absence of musical numbers - a choice motivated in the screenplay, but still not absolutely welcome.
Still, it would take a much worse ending to drain Romance & Cigarettes of its vitality. I can't make you love it, although I very much wish I could. To me, this is the sort of unfiltered creativity that defines The Movies.