Romance and Cigarettes
Let's get one thing straight: Romance and Cigarettes is no crowd-pleaser, and certainly won't be flooding theaters near you anytime soon. That said, it's a shame so few people will see it, if only because it's so starkly different than anything else Hollywood has churned out this year. It is a curious, bittersweet oddity, the kind of alien but authentic knickknack that peered down at you mysteriously from your grandparents' attic. As funny as it is sad, it is also as flawed as it is beautiful.
Written and directed by the benignly odd actor John Turturro, Romance delivers its first big shock with its stellar cast lineup. Kitty Murder (Susan Sarandon) discovers that her husband, Nick (James Gandolfini), has been philandering in the opening scene, and their many daughters (several of whom look just as old as their parents) promptly throw a hissy fit. Then comes the second shock: Is James Gandolfini singing? As it turns out, this is a musical, though the feel is more karaoke bar than Broadway. Nick turns to his friend Angelo (Steve Buscemi) for support in his crumbling marriage, and Kitty turns to her cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), and they all sing, and dance, and stick each other with miniature Swiss Army knives. There's also an excellent catfight between Kitty and Nick's mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet), if you're into that kind of thing.
The cinematic world of Romance and Cigarettes is one where British mistresses eat fried chicken in bed after sex and grown men voluntarily undergo circumcision. Lines such as "You two must think I'm the cucumber in the gardener's ass" and "You'd be surprised, there's a lot of great fags" pepper the script, coughing up solid chuckles and lightening the mood. But Romance, as in life, offers as much pain as it does joy, and Turturro strikes a strangely mature, gray tone in his wandering musings on love, sometimes even inviting questions of its very possibility. Mix half a cup of John Waters with a shot of Rent and two servings of midlife crisis, and you'd have something approaching Turturro's concoction.
As quirky and bizarre as it all is, the movie is strikingly well shot, and both Turturro and cinematographer Tom Stern (Million Dollar Baby) show their worth here. Capturing a tattered suburban landscape within tight framing and deliberate composition, Stern and Turturro find beauty in steel bridge beams, cheap brass latticework, and rusted playgrounds. Be that as it may, Romance and Cigarettes is probably a work that only filmmakers and enthusiasts could ever really love, with its offbeat plot, absurdist interpretation of the musical genre, and impromptu poetry spilling out of Gandolfini. It's certainly not for everyone, and unless you're dying for a sex-comedy tearjerker, it's probably not for you. (G. Brian Davis)