John Turturro’s third directorial effect is decidedly uneven and runs down in the last act, but has enough style and verve overall to make it an engagingly unusual riff along the lines of Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven.” That British television series, reworked as an underrated Hollywood musical by Herbert Ross in 1981, used popular songs of the 1930s to express the emotional life of Depression-era characters. In “Romance & Cigarettes,” Turturro employs fifties and sixties chartbusters to reveal the subtext, as it were, in a period story about a marriage in trouble. The approach is looser and less disciplined than Potter’s (or Ross’, for that matter) but it’s more fun.
The couple in question are the Murders, Nick (James Gandolfini) and Kitty (Susan Sarandon), whose long life together is shattered when she finds that he has a mistress—a literally red-hot British chick named Tula (Kate Winslet). The central issue is whether the guy can break with the younger woman and win back his wife’s love, but in the process a raft of supporting characters are introduced. There are the Murders’ three daughters—Rosebud (Aida Turturro), Constance (Mary Louise Parker) and Baby (Mandy Moore)—who act as a sort of wild Greek chorus; and Baby is infatuated with a goofy neighbor guy (Bobby Cannavale) who calls himself Fryburg and has pretensions about being a rock star. Then there’s Angelo (Steve Buscemi), who works with Nick on high-rise bridge repair and is a font of esoteric information and extravagant advice on love and sex. And Kitty’s Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), a wacked-out Elvis devotee she enlists to help her find the mistress and teach her a lesson. At one point Nick’s salty mother turns up, too, played by that tough old broad, Elaine Stritch.
It has to be said, though, that these figures—especially the supporting ones—aren’t so much characters as types. Even Nick and Kitty are hardly treated in much depth; he’s the gruff but sensitive schmuck in love with the idea of love, and she’s the long-suffering hausfrau who’s finally reached the breaking point. But they’re all colorful enough to carry the rather woozy narrative, pocked with deadpan bits of business, along while the ground is prepared for the next musical number. Some of these—Walken’s “Delilah,” Winslet’s “Red Headed Woman”—are pretty impressively mounted, but most of the others, like the opening “Lonely Is A Man Without Love,” in which Nick is joined by a sudden ensemble of guys on his neighborhood street, have a raffish, loopy, almost throwaway quality that suits the charmingly modest talents of a hoofer like Gandolfini. Everybody in the cast seems to be having a good time, but the members of the romantic triangle at the center of things take the highest honors. Among the others both Buscemi and Walken get ample opportunity to show off their oddball personas, and although the “three sisters” and Cannavale never quite hit the mark, Stritch’s flamboyant cadenza certainly does. In Broadway parlance, it’s a show-stopper.
The last act, which takes up the “cigarettes” side of the title, doesn’t match what’s preceded, moving into territory that’s more conventional and less showily offbeat. But it does at least bring closure, both cinematic and emotional.
Though it’s hardly a big-budget production, the picture is visually winning, with Donna Zakowska’s costumes and production design, Mario R. Ventenilla’s art direction and Elaine O’Donnell’s set decoration contributing to the timeless feel by tossing together period details that meld decades rather than settling on one. And it’s all set off nicely by the widescreen cinematography of Tom Stern, which adds a sheen to the images.
“Romance & Cigarettes” may be a sort of mess, but it’s a joyously infectious one.