Romance and Cigarettes (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sometimes, it's virtually impossible to understand how things work in Hollywood. Crap like Captivity and Norbit get releases while offbeat, enjoyable productions like Romance and Cigarettes languish. The film received its world premiere two years ago at the Venice & Toronto Film Festivals, was picked up by MGM for distribution, then sat around gathering dust. For writer/director John Turturro, the situation became so desperate that he decided to use his own money to finance a limited distribution. And it's not as if this is a little movie made with a mostly unknown cast. A-listers James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Christopher Walken comprise the cast. If a movie with that much talent can't be released, what does that say about the industry?

It's almost unfair to make the comparison because there are so many fundamental differences, but the closest recent movie to Romance and Cigarettes is Moulin Rouge. The key likeness is easy to spot: the characters spontaneously break into familiar pop songs. However, where in Moulin Rouge, the actors did their own versions, in Romance and Cigarettes, they "accompany" known artists. (For example, James Gandolfini gets to do a "duet" with Tom Jones.) It's singing along to a record rather than karaoke. Some actors sing louder than others, meaning that for certain numbers, the recording artist drowns out the on-screen performer.

The director is John Turturro, whose previous directorial outings (Mac and Illuminata) show a progression toward the tone he adopts for this one. Mac was a small, straightforward drama. Illuminata, while fundamentally a serious movie, incorporated offbeat humor. For Romance and Cigarettes, Turturro tweaks the comedy, sending it spinning in a new direction, and adds about nine musical numbers. The Coen Brothers, with whom Turturro has collaborated in the past, function as Executive Producers. It's not clear whether they had input into the film or found its content to be a match for their sensibilities. Also re-teaming with Turturro from Illuminata are Susan Sarandon, Aida Turturro, and Christopher Walken. They are joined by James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard, and Elaine Stritch. Talk about a dream cast!

Not only do we get to watch these great actors in one place, but we have to opportunity to observe them doing something they don't normally do: sing and dance. It is, for example, worth the price of admission to see Christopher Walken act out the lyrics of Tom Jones' "Delilah," then engage in a choreographed production number with a group of dancing police officers. Other song-and-dance pieces include frolicking garbagemen and welders, a church choir, a catfight, and an underwater sequence. Turturro keeps changing things up to prevent them from becoming stale.

Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a blue-collar working stiff who has been married to the same woman, Kitty (Sarandon), for decades. Against his better judgment, he's having an affair with the brassy Cockney Tula (Winslet). Inexplicably, she thinks he's hot and, since she's not interested in a long-term relationship, the age difference doesn't bother her. But Kitty gets curious, and Nick is busted. His three children (Moore, Aida Turturro, Parker) take their mom's side, and Nick's only confidante is his fellow construction worker, Angelo (Buscemi). Things take a turn for the worse when Nick learns that his lifelong smoking habit has resulted in a health problem.

Romance and Cigarettes is good, not-so-clean fun. (Tula, whose every other word would be censored on television, makes sure there's no question of anything other than an R rating.) The eccentricity, along with the musical numbers, are toned down in the final 30 minutes to allow for some character and relationship building. Without this act, Turturro would have given us a big-screen variety show. The concluding segment is what makes Romance and Cigarettes more than a disposable musical. And the opportunity to see Kate Winslet with flaming red hair, James Gandolfini dancing with the garbagemen, and Christopher Walken acting like Elvis is what makes this more than just another dysfunctional family drama.

Romance and Cigarettes (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1