Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"Romance & Cigarettes" -- * * 1/2

John Turturro is a silly goose. But like most silly geese, he has a plethora of chutzpah, and when they unleash their inner thoughts/sensibilities onto their medium of choice, it's always interesting to watch the results. And though it may not really work, even on its own terms, Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes," which he wrote and directed, is always at least interesting for every second of its running time. And though I can't wholeheartedly recommend it, I'd be at a loss for telling people (or, at the least, weirdos) why they shouldn't give it a look.

Starting out with a closeup of our protagonist, Nick Murder's (James Gandolfini) big toe and a voice-over of Kate Winslet stating "when a woman bends over, a man sees a jelly donut," "Romance & Cigarettes" is bizarre right from the get-go, and no sooner has it begun that Turturro establishes that Nick has been cheating on his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon). He's been cheating with Tula (Kate Winslet), an intriguingly-accented, red-headed dirty talker (at one point, she tells Nick, "I want your finger in my asshole") who sells lingerie.

Tula knows the hold she has over Nick and gets off on it; she tells him "You're way too old for me," but follows it up quickly with "I wanna kiss you, big man." Most of "Romance" concerns Nick's conflict of deciding between Kitty and Tula. Even though he knows, deep down, that he realistically can't wind up with Tula, that doesn't stop him from going to extremes for her, including getting a late-in-life circumcision to properly please her.

Oh, I should probably mention that "Romance & Cigarettes" is a musical of sorts, but I can't say it's guarenteed to please either fans or detractors of the genre. Rather than full-fledged musical numbers, we get jarring juxtapositions of gritty reality and cartoonish splashiness where the actors either sing over the original versions of songs from the 40s/50s/60s, or all-out lip sync to them. The numbers oscillate between silly and ridiculous, and are easily the most entertaining parts of the movie.

So it's all the more disappointing when the movie's last 1/4 section stops being a musical altogether, and drastically shifts its tone into a rather serious/sad melodrama that I'm sure Turturro saw a purpose for, but it was certainly lost on me. I thought of the great, underrated "Pennies From Heaven's" shifts back into the real world, but that film's rationale for it doesn't really apply here.

"Romance" boasts an amazing ensemble cast, though aside from the three leads, everyone else seems to have just shown up on the set for a handful of days at most, to varying degrees of success. While Eddie Izzard and Mandy Moore, among others, are woefully underutilized, Bobby Cannavale soaks up every second of screentime he has as a weirdo/rocker lothario who thinks he's the shit (Turturro even affords him an extended closeup of his bulge). Elaine Strich, showing up late in the proceedings as Nick's mother, gets just one scene, but plays the hell out of it, leaving a stronger impression than much of the supporting cast.

Rather predictably, Christopher Walken-- in his handful of scenes-- single-handedly steals the movie as Kitty's Elvis-worshipping cousin Bo. Walken is basically doing his typical gonzo thing, but his heart is clearly in the material here, and you can tell. The actor gives Bo a delightfully strange manner of speaking-- even for Walken-- that I just couldn't pinpoint no matter how hard I listened; I can't be certain, but I think Walken gave him a slight lisp.

Gandolfini will never quite escape Tony Soprano, but we never once think of him as a tough guy here and that's a credit to the performance. It's not a mastery of acting, but he's believable, oddly sympathetic and manages to succeed at cutting Nick from a different cloth than Tony. However, since David Chase was going to piss fans off no matter what, I can't help but delight in thinking of a hypothetical world where "Romance & Cigarettes" served as the final episode to "The Sopranos" and seeing how fans would react.

Winslet, as usual, is wonderful as Tula. As a delightfully selfish bitch, it's a pleasure to watch her dance up a storm, and listen to her speak thoroughly filthy dialogue, and even a scene of Tula goading Nick while he's fucking her is a thing of beauty in her hands. Sarandon, strangely enough, manages to give a real performance amidst all this madness. She's filled with real anger and heartbreak, even in her scene where she gets to bellow at Winslet, accusing her of having a "loose pussy." But regardless of variation, every actor here is obviously have a blast, to the point where I think I'd rather see a behind-the-scene documentary than the actual finished product.

As for the musical numbers, well, some are better than others. While each one succeeds at being a "showstopper," so to speak, the standouts are clearly Walken's mind-blowing rendition of Tom Jones's "Delilah," and Sarandon's fiery-though-too-brief lip-synching of Janis Joplins "Little Piece of My Heart."

What sadly keeps me from qualifying "Romance & Cigarettes" as a success, even a haphazard one, is its floundering and sentimental final 25 minutes, and the occasional moments throughout of monotony and quirk-fatigue. While the film starts out so-strange-you-can't-help-but-enjoy-it, by the two-thirds mark, you'll likely find your good will worn out.

Still, along the way, Turturro gives us plenty of delightfully bizarre touches (Gandolfini and Sarandon's teenage daughters are played by Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore and Aida Turturro) and the occasional bursts of laugh-out-loud dialogue (in response to Nick's circumcision, his co-worker/friend-- played by Steve Buscemi-- comments, "Somebody cuts my dick, it better be for vengeance").

As you may or may not have read, "Romance & Cigarettes" was intended to be released over two years ago, but after marketing issues and poor festival reception, Turturro found himself without a distributor. Now, over three years after its filming, the movie will finally open at one single theater (the Film Forum in New York City) this Friday. If it achieves success at this venue-- and I predict it will-- it'll likely open in other markets, but most of you will probably have to wait for DVD for your chance to see it. Though it suffers from perhaps too much ambition, and is a weird hodgepodge of ideas, I can't imagine any lover of adventurous cinema being truly sorry they saw it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

All right, I admit it - I know Rob. But I admit this only to prove my complete candor during this post - I think he is my favorite film critic. Even when I disagree with him, and I sometimes do, I am always at least willing to reconsider my position, as his posts are at minumum cogent and usually persuasive, entertaining, and yes, dammit, illuminating. This review is no different. Intelligent without being pretentious, clever without being cloying, he's one of my favortie voices out there writing about movies, or for that matter, culture in general. - Jack C.

10:13 PM  

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