Sometimes, I really want a movie to be good, but no matter how much I pull for it to succeed, there's no way around its failings.
Such is the case with Romance and Cigarettes, the new film written and directed by John Turturro. Who doesn't like John Turturro? As an actor, he's been in some excellent films, including Do the Right Thing, Quiz Show, and multiple ventures with the Coen Bros. That brotherly film duo acts as producers on this, Turturro's third outing as a director, and it smacks of the kind of genre-melding high concept they'd go for. Unfortunately, their cohort doesn't have the same oddball eye that they do.
James Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, an everyday working schlub who lives in a New York suburb with his wife and three daughters. Things are rolling along fine until his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), finds a poem he has written for a woman named Tula (Kate Winslet). Though Nick denies her being his mistress, Kitty sees right through him. After all the time they've been together, she knows him too well. Plus, he comes from a long line of "whoremasters." All the men in his family cheat on their wives.
Tula is a red-haired temptress who has Nick's head turned completely around. She is crude, rude, and completely without boundaries. She works as an underwear saleswoman, but she rarely has need for the product herself--or so you would believe from the way she talks. For all of her defenses, Turturro will eventually try to show that there are true feelings underneath the bawdy shell. It's one of many twists he will try to pull on us before Romance and Cigarettes is through, and it's only due to Kate Winslet's immense talent that it comes across. Not all of the twists do.
The main kink Turturro tries to put into the movie is that it's kind of a musical. Borrowing a technique from the British TV show Blackpool (recently remade for the U.S. as the disastrous Viva Laughlin), the characters often erupt into song a la traditional Hollywood musicals, but with a sub-Moulin Rouge conceit. Their singing is inspired by well-known recordings from people like Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, James Brown, and Engelbert Humperdink, all of which actually play through the scenes. Gandolfini, Sarandon, and the rest all sing over the top of the original. Thus, when Christopher Walken struts in and steals the show as Kitty's left-of-center cousin, he is crooning along with Tom Jones and "Delilah." Jones' voice is underneath Walken's, as opposed to Walken singing on his own with the aid of a backing track.
It's an odd idea, but it is one that the actors are capable of pulling off with the right staging. In the first fifteen minutes, when Gandolfini goes from the car where he's listening to Humperdink's "A Man Without Love" and enters into a classic MGM song and dance with the other lonely, disillusioned men of his rundown neighborhood, I actually thought that Romance and Cigarettes had something. It seemed to me that Turturro was using popular music because of its regular appearance in our lives. We hear them so regularly, our favorite songs have become a salve for our bruised emotions, a proxy for the things we can't express. In this way, the flights of fancy that Nick and Kitty and the rest engage in are a kind of common-man version of something Gene Kelley or Judy Garland might have performed in the past.
Unfortunately, that explanation quickly faded. Each succeeding dance number gets more ambitious, but more leaden, dragged down by the weight of that ambition. Outside of Kate Winslet's underwater performance of particularly a gut-wrenching number 2/3 into the picture and a brief snippet of Mandy Moore performing "I Want Candy," none of the other music scenes work. John Turturro's direction is too clumsy and too confused. I couldn't even figure out what era Romance and Cigarettes was supposed to be in. Everyone looks like they are knee-deep in the 1980s, but yet there are references to thongs and Tula works for Agent Provocateur. Is there a reason for this? Is it just that the suburbs are frozen in time? I don't really know. The look of the picture makes about as much sense as the lumpen fantasy sequences that see Nick playing such varied roles as Oedipus and a NYC fire fighter. It's all unnecessary distraction.
To John Turturro's credit, Romance and Cigarettes isn't an excruciating failure. It's at least an interesting one. I can generally see what he's going for. The film is also helped along by the fact that he surrounded himself with an amazing cast of actors. James Gandolfini made me forget all about Tony Soprano, and Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi both run away with the picture in smaller supporting roles (though the top scene of the movie actually belongs to Elaine Stritch as Nick's mother). Just about everyone is good, excepting Amy Sedaris in a shrill cameo and the usually excellent Mary-Louise Parker as one of Nick's daughters. She completely overdoes everything, perhaps to compensate for the fact that she is playing a part that is far too young for her.
So, again, for all of these wonderful people, I really wanted to like Romance and Cigarettes way more than I did. Unfortunately, the movie never gels. It's so splintered, in fact, the whole third act feels like it belongs to another film entirely. The dark turn that Turturro tries to take, giving us the cigarettes in opposition to the romance, is on a completely different highway than the one he started out on. Dare I say, though, that the production improves at this point, and I actually think if Turturro had made the whole movie like the latter third, he'd have had a better picture? Even so, it's not enough. Romance and Cigarettes is too confused a product for me to recommend with any great enthusiasm. Sorry, John, I just didn't fall in love with it.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.