The marriage of construction worker Nick Murder (Gandolfini) goes into freefall when his wife, Kitty (Sarandon), discovers he has taken a mistress, Tula (Winslet). As Kitty enlists her Cousin Bo (Walken) to track down Tula, and his youngest daughter (Mand
After Mac and the little-seen Illuminata, John Turturro’s third outing as a director is high on inspiration but low on cohesion. Apparently written while Turturro was clacking the typewriter in the title role of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink — continuing the link, the Coens serve as exec producers here — Romance & Cigarettes tries to syringe musical numbers into an indie-styled family drama. The result is a hodgepodge of terrific musical set-pieces, uncorraled ambition, strong performances, salty dialogue and plodding sub-plots that works in fits and starts but never quite gels.
Early on, watching B-plus-list stars sing along to pop anthems will arouse delight. This is a movie that revels in the sight of Tony Soprano belting out Engelbert Humperdinck’s A Man Without Love, Susan Sarandon ripping into Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart accompanied by Eddie Izzard on the organ, and Kate Winslet mouthing the words to Little Water Song while swimming underwater. But, to match the realistic milieu, these aren’t the lavish set-pieces of Broadway brio. The choreography is simple, enlivened by performance gusto rather than polished dancing, smart cutting rather than production razzle-dazzle.
As blue-collar schmo and wronged hellcat respectively, Gandolfini and Sarandon provide fun variations on characters they could do in their sleep, and although Winslet’s foul-mouthed turn in Extras slightly steals its shock value, her sexed-up Northern redhead is a joy. Get past the leads and there is quality at every turn — Elaine Stritch delivering a bitter tirade against men, Steve Buscemi serving up skewed sex advice to a bemused Gandolfini. Yet unsurprisingly the whole shebang is stolen by Walken, who strolls in to Elvis’ Trouble, barnstorms through Tom Jones’ Delilah then leaves. Brief, brilliant — the film misses Walken like a hole in the heart.
In between the songs, however, Romance & Cigarettes sags, Turturro never translating the feel of the musical into the drama. Occasionally, he nails the tone — he plays a nice recurrent trick where characters magically appear as they are talked about — but, unlike Dennis Potter, say, Turturro can’t find any dramatic/emotional mileage in the disparity between the platitudes of pop and the harsh realities of life and love. As the film moves towards its climax, Turturro abandons the musical idea altogether, sending Romance & Cigarettes spiralling into conventional drama. Which is a shame, as the start deserved better.
Terrific as a musical, indifferent as a drama, the movies great cast fails to rescue a scattershot approach. See it, though, for Walken on inspired form.