Censors and angry parents may focus on how music debases us. Actor and sometime director John Turturro prefers to show the transcendent, woeful, aching dimension to pop music and its ability to lift up our love-bruised souls.
Filmed by Turturro in the borough of Queens where he grew up, Romance & Cigarettes strives to be, in his own terms, a "working-class opera." Overstuffed with a Chex Mix of offbeat thespians (Eddie Izzard, Steve Buscemi and Amy Sedaris, among many others), the film feels overburdened with talent but artistically vacant. Turturro clearly has a lot of friends, but he lacks a worthy vehicle to feature them.
Romance & Cigarettes is Turturro's third directorial effort after the lukewarm success of Mac and Illuminata. While most musicals are ebullient and light on their feet, Turturro's musical feels weighed down with cement boots.
As an actor, Turturro has oozed charisma, often balancing a goofy fragility with a festering intensity. As a director, words like "blunt instrument" and "fumbling" come to mind. Turturro's actorly persona seems to have little relationship to the overripe, crude hamminess of his directing style.
Despite its contemporary setting, Turturro's vision of the world seems trapped in the 1950s. Romance & Cigarettes centers on a couple with R-rated mouths, but mentalities that feel cut from the cloth of "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy" with their stark gender roles and working-class concerns. But like its mix of past and present pop music with moony nostalgia and sexual frankness, Romance & Cigarettes inhabits the paradox of too much and not enough.
Susan Sarandon plays a working-class stereotype named Kitty Kane, the consummate suffering mother who works as a stay-at-home seamstress and tends to her three devoted children (all played by grown-up actresses Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro). In times of trouble, like all maternal clichés, Kitty turns to the Catholic church. The same hangdog, love-starved übermama lampooned in John Waters' Hairspray is treated without irony here.
Kitty's hairy-knuckled husband, Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), is a skyscraper welder engaged in a nasty affair with a redheaded working girl, Tula (Kate Winslet), who has a mouth like the bottom of an ashtray. When Kitty stumbles upon some hardcore love poetry Nick has penned to Tula, the rusty gears of this unabashedly crude musical begin to grind. Will Nick leave Kitty for Tula? Can Kitty forgive? Who cares?
In the same way Waters dredged escapist charm from even grim, blue-collar Baltimore in Hairspray, Turturro attempts to suggest another, better world and escape from romantic disappointment in song. In a musical hodgepodge spanning a maze of generations, Turturro calls upon the golden throats of James Brown, Elvis, Tom Jones and Ute Lemper to add soul to his project. In a church choir accompanied by organist Gene (Eddie Izzard), cuckold Kitty belts out Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." And in an opening number that could be called the Palooka's Lament, Nick is joined by a singing and dancing chorus of welders, garbage men and other working stiffs singing Engelbert Humperdink's "A Man Without Love." Turturro struggles mightily for ironic juxtaposition – Joplin in church, tough guys singing a mournful song – but to put it in the bluntly oversexed terms of the film itself, Romance & Cigarettes can't get it up.
Turturro lacks both a knack for comedy and that more ephemeral touch of heart and soul that makes musicals transcendent. His bouts of pop-music magical realism feel clunky and forced. Romance & Cigarettes' characters might want to escape their grimy reality, but Turturro's gutter sensibility won't let them.
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