Contrary to popular belief, Chief Justice Michael Stailey is not a whoremaster.
"You have got dinosaur balls, mister! You go and get yourself a mistress and on top of that you got yourself circumcised? Jesus! We're not even Jewish!!!"—Mrs. Murder
Every once in a while a movie comes along that challenges you to re-examine the filmmaking process. Romance & Cigarettes was born on Barton Fink's typewriter. Seriously. Many of these scenes were written on set as John Turturro inhabited the Cohen Brothers quirky character. From conception to screen, this has been an experimental passion project for the acclaimed actor; and, for only his third film, he does a damn fine job.
Facts of the Case
Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is in a rut. The flame of passion in his marriage has long since gone out; he's got three daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, Mandy Moore) to support, all of 'em still livin' at home; and a lousy job workin' construction on huge suspension bridges. So, where does a depressed, overweight, middle-aged guy turn for comfort? Sex, of course…and not just any sex. We're talking crazy sex with a smoking hot, red haired, foul mouthed, chain smokin' British broad. Woof! 'Course, when da wife (Susan Sarandon) finds out, there's hell to pay. And, when da chips are down, life has a funny way of clarifyin' your priorities. Oh, and did I mention, when these folks get really emotional, they start singin'? What?! You gotta problem with dat?
Romance & Cigarettes takes place, as John puts it, on the edge of nowhere. With a 1960s sensibility, the story is a gritty, personal, de-evolution of a guy who's not very happy with his life. It's something anyone who's ever been married can identify with—what happened to the life you began when committing yourself, heart and soul, to another person? Somewhere along the way, you lose each other and your perspective. Some retreat within themselves or their work. Others find comfort in the company friends, family, co-workers, or complete strangers. It's a weird thing and John captures those nuances in all their gritty nakedness.
Infused with an interesting level of the surreal, we follow Nick as he wanders through his torturously mundane life while his memories and fantasies collide with one another. Gandolfini's Nick is the archetypal Ralph Kramden/Fred Flintstone figure. I work, you take care of the house, and the kids, and have dinner ready for me when I get home. My house, my rules. This outdated, Neanderthal way of thinking has gotten a lot of guys into trouble over the years. They became "the provider," or "the father," or "the disciplinarian," and forgot who they really were. More often than not, by the time they realized what happened, they'd lost their family, their health, or their life. I won't lie to you. Romance & Cigarettes is not a film that leaves you smiling, but that's not to say there aren't moments of great comedy contained within. How can there not be when Nick is surrounded by a cast of characters that are nuttier than he is?
Steve Buscemi (Interview) plays Nick's best friend and co-worker, Barney Rubble…er…Ed Norton…ah…Angelo, a hilariously observant, dirty little troll. Close your eyes and you might even swear he's channeling director Kevin Smith. Speaking of dirty, Elaine Stritch (30 Rock) makes a brilliant but all too brief appearance as Nick's Mom; one of the highlights of the film. As his gaggle of female offspring, Mary-Louise Parker (Connie), Aida Turturro (Rosebud), and Mandy Moore (Baby) are a tempestuous mixture of their parents. Connie is the experimenter who sides with her mother, when not directing her anger towards her father or channeling it into her music (if that's what you call it); Rose is the dumb but loveable one who tries her best, but that's about all she can muster; and Baby is the hope for the future, that is if they can stop her from marrying her pompadour-sporting, James Brown wannabe boyfriend, Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale, The Ten). Amy Sedaris (I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With) plays Frances, the girl's rival next door neighbor who doesn't get nearly enough screen time. The living cartoon character that is Christopher Walken (Balls of Fury) shows up as Kitty's (Sarandon) cousin Bo, an Elvis-infatuated, self-professed private investigator who helps her track down Nick's mistress, Tula played by Kate Winslet (Little Children). Did you see Kate's guest appearance on Ricky Gervais' Extras? If so, multiply the raunch factor by 10 and you have the beginnings of this character. Without question, Kate gives this role everything she's got and it speaks volumes for John as a director to inspire such reckless abandon. If nothing else, you have to see Romance & Cigarettes specifically for her performance.
Now, for the surreal to work, the story has to be based in reality, which is provided by the complex relationship between Nick and Kitty. This is the single most effective aspect of the script. You can see the love that used to be there, and yet so much has passed between them neither are able to bridge the gap and reconnect in any deep or meaningful way. Galdolfini and Sarandon play so well off each other you'd swear they had a history together in real life.
All that being said, Romance & Cigarettes has one major flaw—the musical numbers. If you've followed my reviews, you know I'm a musical theatre guy and have a sincere appreciation for anyone who tackles this genre. It's not an easy feat to accomplish though and this is where John stumbles. The choreography and staging of these sequences are fantastic, born out of real situations with real people, as well as complete off the wall fantasies. However, if you want your actors sing, let them sing. If they aren't strong enough to do so on their own, you can ADR them with someone who can. After all, it's been a Hollywood tradition since the dawn of cinematic sound. But whatever you do, don't have them sing on top of a popular recording artists. It doesn't work. Hugh Jackman tried it with Viva Laughlin and failed miserably. If you love a particular recording and want to strip off the vocal tracks for your actors to sing to, go right ahead. But to have Galdofini sing over Englebert Humperdinck, Saradon over Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin, Chris Walken over Elvis and Tom Jones, and Bobby Cannavale over James Brown is downright criminal and undermines what could have been even more memorable performances.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the image is a little dark and the 35mm film stock exhibits a fine grain. However, the blacks are strong during the night scenes and the colors pop, especially the reds whenever Kate's onscreen. The remaining color palate is muted tones—beiges, yellows, browns, light blues—capturing that '60s feel and yet still making the film appear timeless. The Dolby 5.1 surround audio track works well, offering up its most robust moments during the musical numbers. During the rest of the movie, it's fairly mundane.
As for bonus materials, there's a brief introduction to the film by director John Turturro, which I recommend watching before starting the movie. An engaging audio commentary by John and son Amedeo (who contributed a great deal to the film) is well worth a listen, both funny and insightful. A series of deleted scenes are given upfront intros by John, who appears almost uncomfortable having to explain why they were removed from the final cut. The final piece is a mini making of documentary called "Making a Homemade Musical" which shows John in action along with great insights from Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet…by phone.
Structurally, visually, and emotionally, Romance & Cigarettes delivers a powerful punch from a fantastic ensemble cast. If you can look past the ineffectual choice of his actors fighting to have their voices heard over popular recording artists, you'll walk away impressed by John Turturro's third outing.
Be romantic and smoke your brains out.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with director John Turturro and actor/son Amedeo Turturro
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