"Romance & Cigarettes" is gloriously absurd, as wild and wide-eyed and over-the-top as the man who made it, John Turturro. When it succeeds, it soars with great abandon, and when it fails, it fails so grandly that we still want to applaud it, admiring the effort. This is a madhouse of a movie.
The film is a musical, although not a traditional one. Taking a cue from such titles as "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Singing Detective," the songs are familiar oldies; Turturro, who wrote and directed, goes one step further and has the original recordings play on the soundtrack, with the cast singing on top of those tunes. Sometimes this is the wrong choice - the movie gets us itching to hear Susan Sarandon belt out "Piece of My Heart," but the sound mix leaves her drowned out by Janis Joplin, and we know we're missing a great opportunity - but most of the time, there's an energy that connects the songs with the cast. Right from the top, as James Gandolfini croons along with Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love," blue collar New Yorkers dancing in the streets with him, we see just where Turturro can take us.
The plot is relatively simple, but this is necessary considering the fantasy elements (not only in terms of the music, but also in the sort-of-a-dream sequences that find the characters' inner thoughts coming to life before us, if only for a glimpse or two). This lummox, improbably named Nick Murder (Gandolfini), has been having an affair with the mysterious Tula (Kate Winslet, cranking her sultriness to eleven), a sales clerk in a lingerie shop. She finds Nick's beer gut and rough demeanor to be signs of a manhood that turns her into a beast of pure sexual desire, the most vulgar of demands dripping from her lips like honey. Behind her desires lurks true love, which adds a peculiar layer to what we originally assume is just some slutty Other Woman.
But then there is the wife, another fiery redhead: Kitty (Sarandon). She just found out about the affair, and she's not standing for it. Along with their three loyal daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro), she declares war on Nick, who becomes stuck in hostile territory.
From here, Turturro takes us on strange tangents: the youngest daughter (Moore) gets engaged to the boy next door (Bobby Cannavale), a crooner/greaser who speaks in the third person and is held in check by an overbearing mother; Kitty gets a visit from Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken, here at his most Christopher Walkenest), who suggests offing Nick in revenge; Nick undergoes a series of medical mishaps, one of which plays for curious laughs, one for dire drama, and one that's somewhere in between; Nick's mother (Elaine Stritch) visits the movie and unloads shocking personal secrets that will make you gasp or guffaw, depending on your mood (Turturro aims for both at once); and so on.
Some of these tangents go too far out of the way - why, exactly, do we need the scene involving Amy Sedaris and Adam LeFevre as obnoxious neighbors? - and Turturro leaves too many loose ends afloat and too many characters untouched. (Parker and Aida Turturro suffer the most, their characters never quite making it beyond the background.)
But even at its clumsiest and most cluttered, "Romance & Cigarettes" mesmerizes so much that we forgive the chaos. This is an endlessly fascinating experiment, a rowdy mix of winking comedy and colossal melodrama, all pushing forward a notion that music connects us in ways no other art form can (no, not even cinema). Turturro steps out with bold filmmaking and loony ideas, and his results are so enchanting that even when he loses, he wins.
The film's backstory deserves a mention. Originally unleashed as part of the 2005 film festival season, "Romance & Cigarettes" eventually found itself in limbo, with MGM and Sony unsure which studio held the rights, neither willing to risk a release. When the smoke cleared and Sony announced it would take the film straight to DVD in 2008, Turturro opted instead to finance a theatrical release himself, touring the film around the nation in 2007 before surrendering it to the studio. It was a strange, ingenious move, which fits, as this is a strange, ingenious movie.
Video & Audio
The film looks very solid in this anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which lets the rich color scheme shine and keeps the low budget quirks to a minimum. The soundtrack, in Dolby 5.1, is equally vibrant, providing a crisp balance between dialogue and music. Optional English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are offered.
Turturro provides a film introduction (2:56), in which he explains how the movie came to be. Oddly, this intro does not play when you select "play movie" from the main menu; you have to access this from the special features menu. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with on-set making-of footage presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox.
Turturro also provides a commentary track, teaming with his son Amedeo. It's a family affair, which leads to some enjoyable chattiness as the elder Turturro covers all the bases regarding the movie's history.
"Making a Homemade Musical" (12:06) has an oddly raw vibe for a making-of featurette. Rough on-set footage is mixed with testimonials from Sarandon and Winslet, who reminisce (separately) via telephone in what becomes some sort of makeshift commentary track. Presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox.
Seven deleted scenes (15:35 total) come with individual introductions by Turturro. For a nice change of pace, these deleted scenes are actually worth watching, adding some nice character touches. Plus, more Walken! The scenes are presented in 2.35:1 flat letterbox; the intros are in 1.33:1 full frame.
Finally, a set of previews rounds out the set. Some of these previews also play as the disc loads.
Alternately eccentric, sexy, touching, confusing, and downright silly, "Romance & Cigarettes" is definitely Recommended to anyone looking for something a little extra off-center.