Romance & Cigarettes

2007, Movie, R, 115 mins


John Turturro's vaguely autobiographical, karaoke musical, set to a variety of hits of the 1960s and '70s, strands a top-notch — if oddly diverse — cast in a vulgar, foul-mouthed story of love, marriage and coffin nails.

The place is Queens, New York, and the time is, well... let's say once upon a time. Construction worker Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) comes home to find his wife, seamstress Kitty (Susan Sarandon), in a fury over a snippet of pornographic poetry she assumes her husband wrote for another woman. Nick is in fact having a hot-and-heavy affair with saucy tart Tula (Kate Winslet, affecting red hair and a heavy Mancunian accent), who works at naughty-underwear emporium Agent Provocateur, and the three Murder daughters — Rosebud (Aida Turturro), Constance (Mary-Louise Parker) and Baby (Mandy Moore) — side with their mother, as does her oddball cousin, Bo (Christopher Walken), who talks exclusively in snippets of song lyrics and movie dialogue. Meanwhile, Baby is convinced she wants to marry neighborhood lothario Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale), whose loopy mom, Gracie (Barbara Sukowa), is still mourning the man who betrayed her, and Nick appeals to his even loopier coworker, Angelo (Steve Buscemi), for advice about his contentious love life. The situation is, Kitty assures Cousin Bo, "worse than any song can say," but the film's gimmick is precisely that there's nothing that can't be said in song: Kitty wails Janice Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," Nick and the local palookas mourn along with Englebert Humperdinck that there's nothing sadder than "A Man without Love," fiery Tula is introduced via Bruce Springsteen's "Red Headed Woman" and later wonders, "Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me" a la Connie Francis, and Bo filters his own heartbreak through Tom Jones' "Delilah," the movie's hands-down showstopper.

The trouble is that Turturro's reach considerably exceeds his grasp: Where U.K. writer Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986) — clearly Turturro's models, though he should perhaps have taken note that the U.S. remakes were awful — found devastating poignancy in pop platitudes, Turturro zeroes in on the trite and the obvious. The production numbers are pedestrian and it's a toss-up as to which is more amateurish: the song covers or the sequences in which the actors sing over vintage recordings. If the point is that popular tunes give voice to inner lives far richer and more vivid than the characters' circumstances, why let untrained singers make them coarse and ordinary? ROMANCE & CIGARETTES spent two years on the shelf before Turturro put his own money into a limited release, which, to his credit, confirmed that he had the courage of his convictions. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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