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Romance & Cigarettes

Olive Films // R // November 24, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 12, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Note: Although screencaps should only be considered an idea of what the disc looks like, click any capture in this review to expand the image to a full size .png.

Although I can't find it now, I recall once hearing a quote saying eventually, every director ends up wanting to make a musical. It's easy to see why: when done well, a gigantic production number is visually dazzling, the energy and exuberance of a good number is transferred to the audience, and everyone loves the feeling when the right song combine with the right idea to convey an emotion perfectly. When thinking about those possibilities, it's hard to believe that a musical starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, and Christopher Walken, produced by the Coen Brothers, and directed by John Turturro wouldn't be both as lovely as it is unique. Sadly, the film doesn't even really manage the latter.

The heart of the problem lies with Turturro, who also wrote the script. Turturro's idea of comedy comes almost completely out of stereotypes: all of the men are dumb lugs who lust after women but probably have their heart in the right place, and all of the women are sex-starved hussies or righteous firebrands. One-liners impart grand wisdom, such as, "Marriage is combat, son. And not clean combat." The story begins when Nick Murder (Gandolfini) is confronted by his wife, Kitty Kane (Sarandon) about a love poem in his pocket, written to Tula (Winslet). Kitty, the firebrand, throws Nick, the dumb lug, out of the house, and he crawls off to Tula, the sex-starved hussy, all while Nick's daughters (Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Mary-Louise Parker) hang around in the background with friends and family like Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) and Cousin Bo (Walken). A measure of caricature about New Yorkers can be forgiven, and a bit more could be weaved into character, but everything in the movie feels like a hoary stand-up comedy bit from the early 1980s.

The stereotypes are applied to both sexes in equal measure, but Turturro really gives women the short end of the stick, and in service of a movie that mostly argues "it's no picnic being a guy." Nick's poem includes a reference to Tula's vagina (this following some inexplicable opening voice-over from her about men's inability to resist a woman's "jelly donut"), prompting Kitty to scream at him, "It's just a hole!" After Tula finishes a vigorous lovemaking session with Nick, he has the audacity to honestly chide her that her frank way of speaking might not be ladylike. Eventually, Kitty and Tula confront each other in the lingerie shop where Tula works, running around the store screeching at each other and pulling at their hair. Every once in awhile, the movie manages to be bawdy and playful without being totally insulting (such as Winslet's first big number, a fantasy sequence featuring her dancing in the window of a burning building while Gandolfini and Buscemi ham it up on the ground in firefighter gear -- although even that has Buscemi's character Angelo calling Tula a bitch for no reason), but all too often, Turturro crosses the line between crude and risque.

Worse, Turturro seems to like or even sympathize Nick, who rarely acts less than selfish. He's outraged -- in a way that seems only slightly exaggerated for the sake of comedy -- that nobody's made him a meal when he returns home from work the first night after Kitty has seen his poem. Later, it's not Tula who dumps Nick, but Nick who pushes her away, including literally shoving her into a lake for the sake of a musical number. He imagines himself as a slave, chained up and blindfolded as his wife and daughters stand by, laughing at him, when in truth they don't ask much of him at all, while he offers very little in return. Although there are technically consequences for him in the end, they don't feel like they have much to do with his bad behavior as opposed to his nature as a certain kind of man.

Finally, Turturro also struggles on a stylistic level. Although his musical numbers have a basic energy and humor to them, his sense of composition is often cramped and off-center, with dancers in backgrounds often awkwardly positioned or cropped out of frame. Bit players ham it up during most of the numbers, taking the juxtaposition of emotional earnestness and the suburban setting and making so much of a joke out that the emotion becomes insincere. His decision to essentially cover up his cast's vocal performances is also frustrating, with original recordings of songs laid over their singing. There are times when Romance & Cigarettes almost captures that magic one hopes to get out of a musical, but as a whole, the cinematic sexiness of the title is out of Turturro's reach, leaving behind only pat platitudes, and sickly, choking caricature.

The Blu-ray
Romance & Cigarettes arrives with its original theatrical poster intact, which -- kind of tellingly -- includes a photo of Kate Winslet's cleavage and legs but not her face. The single-disc release comes in a boxy Infiniti Blu-ray case, and there is a postcard insert for other Olive Films releases.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC, Romance & Cigarettes' HD transfer looks decidedly dated. Detail is middling, offering a jump in clarity from a DVD, but displaying muddled skin, hair, and cloth detail in medium shots. Colors appear very noticeably muted even when some of the film's aggressively bright colors are noticeable and stand-out on screen, as if a faint layer of flattening gray laid over the image. Weak contrast further reduces depth. On the whole, this is passable, but decidedly underwhelming.

Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which sounds better than the picture looks, but still seems maybe a touch muddled. When the characters burst into song, their vocals are not entirely muted in favor of the original pop recordings, but the way these intermingle can come off a bit more like a car crash than a cooperative chorus. In a bit of aural schizophrenia, the movie doesn't have much going on, audio-wise, when there isn't any music -- characters sit in suburban homes and businesses talking to one another, and even when the action moves outdoors, there's not much in the way of environmental ambiance -- the sound of Gandolfini and Sarandon talking in their kitchen sounds pretty much the same as Gandolfini and Buscemi talking up on the bridge. As is the norm for Olive, no subtitles or captions are included.

The Extras
Although MGM's DVD edition included an audio commentary, an introduction, deleted scenes, and a featurette, this Blu-ray edition ports none of them. Still, the one inclusion here -- an original theatrical trailer -- was probably not on the DVD.

There's a long list of reasons why Romance & Cigarettes could have been a lovely little cult classic, but it's a big whiff instead, struggling to say anything that isn't sort of shrill or obnoxious. On top of that, this Blu-ray edition features a mediocre transfer and dumps all the DVD's extras. Skip it.

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