Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
Written & Directed by John Turturro
When an actor turns to directing, it is always a risk. They could be pretty talented like Bo Burnham or Jordan Peele. Or they might not. I think that is sadly the case with John Turturro. This was the actor’s third film in the director’s chair and his first written solo. My takeaway is that directing isn’t a strength of the storied actor. I love seeing him in the movies of talented filmmakers, but he doesn’t seem to have the chops to make something that isn’t totally muddled and embarrassingly poor. Romance & Cigarettes has some pieces that would make for a great film. Yet there is a lot here that would inevitably ruin any movie, and as the director, it was Turturro’s job to make sure everything worked.
Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is a construction worker living in a typical New York neighborhood. His house is full of women, his wife, Kitty Kane (Susan Sarandon), and three daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, and Aida Turturro). The film opens with Kitty discovering Nick’s infidelity. He’s been having trysts with the fiery, seductive Tula (Kate Winslet). Both husband and wife contemplate the state of their marriage, realizing that it may be time to end things. Each person is advised with various solutions from friends and family but ultimately have to decide for themselves what their path should be. Then deus ex machina happens and nullifies anyone’s actions ending the movie with an incredibly confusing & unsatisfying ending.
The idea of a blue-collar musical is actually incredibly brilliant. Today, musical theater is associated with a particular type of person, often college-educated and/or female/feminine. However, that wasn’t always the case. Broadway and musicals were popular across all demographics at one point in American history. However, something shifted in the late 1960s when musicals felt out of favor as being in dissonance with the social movements of the time. So, on paper, Turturro has a great concept, but it went completely wrong.
The film opens semi-promisingly. There’s a very silly rendition of Englebert Humperdinck’s “Man Without Love” sung by all the male cast members of the picture, including little boys in the neighborhood. It has the energy you’d want in a musical, contrasting its semi-suburban setting with grandiose camera angles and dancing. Later in the film, Kitty joins a church choir run by Eddie Izzard, and she belts out an impressive rendition of “Piece of My Heart.” Sarandon does have singing chops, as does Mandy Moore. Everyone else is in a strange middle space where they sound good in certain moments and then incredibly off-key on the following line. The way Turturro has chosen to make his musical is to play the original songs and have his actors sing over them. This was a terrible decision and makes most musical numbers a real chore to sit through. It’s not enough of the original and also not enough of the actor’s natural voice.
There are some suspension of disbelief moments, but I fully expect that with a musical. This is a very impressionistic genre, so you can’t get too hung up on logic. What I expect from a musical is a coherent story with consistent characters, and we do not have that here. There’s a rush to get the plot going, but that undermines giving us time to learn who these people are and give a shit about them. Bobby Cannavale plays Moore’s boyfriend, who she is apparently deeply in love with. Do we get enough scenes written well enough to establish this? Nope. Once we’re around the movie’s midpoint, the whole affair becomes exhausting to watch. Everyone is stumbling through their performances, genuinely putting forth their best effort. The material and the direction are not up to snuff, though.
Romance & Cigarettes could have been something exceptional, but it’s now yet another oddity in John Turturro’s director’s C.V. If you showed me the cast list and the premise, I would think I was in for some overlooked mid-2000s treat. Gandolfini is fine; he’s playing a more working-class version of Tony Soprano. I wouldn’t recommend this film unless you are genuinely keen on being a Gandolfini completist or just like odd, irregular movies. I can see this having some sort of a cult following but certainly not anything you find with other obscure musicals.
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