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May 21, 2008

DVD Review: Romance & Cigarettes a Noble Failure (Emphasis on Failure)


By Stephen Silver

Count John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes as a noble failure – with emphasis on the failure. A New York-based musical (!) with no original songs and a cast packed with critical favorites, Turturro’s film deserves credit for trying something different and unconventional, but regardless – very little in it works.


Written and directed by Turturro with an executive producing credit for the Coen Brothers, Romance & Cigarettes was originally scheduled for release in 2005, but found itself delayed for more than two years, despite a cast that includes James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi and numerous other figures of cinematic consequence.


Romance & Cigarettes finally got a perfunctory theatrical release in late fall after its director personally took control of it, and it recently arrived on DVD. Watching it now, it’s not hard to see how it was never a strong contender to connect with audiences.


In a story set in an unnamed outer borough of New York, Gandolfini is Nick, a New York construction worker living with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon), but really having eyes for his redheaded lover (Kate Winslet.) While Nick tries to choose a woman, and get back in his family’s good graces, Kitty enlists her cousin Bo (Christopher Walken) to get revenge against the mistress.


Throughout, there are songs, lots of them – Walken’s song-and-dance routine to Tom Jones’ “Delilah” is a highlight – with Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin, Engelbert Humperdinck and Elvis among others represented, with the actors singing along to the original recordings. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but we never get the sense that they needed to be in the movie.


The songs aren’t the worst thing in Romance & Cigarettes, however. The plot is sparse, and there’s not nearly enough of it for a nearly two-hour film. The dialogue is more than a little bit creepy, especially with a seeming obsession with both circumcision and female genitalia. And for reasons I can’t fathom, two of the 46-year-old Gandolfini’s daughters are played by Mary Louise Parker (who is 42) and Aida Turturro (who is 45, and played Gandolfini’s sister on The Sopranos.) And on top of that the film, shot in the Big Apple, makes little use of New York locations.


Gandolfini played such an icon on The Sopranos that it can be hard to buy him in any other role. It’s especially true in the film, especially since we’ve already seen him commit adultery, fight with his wife, experience anguish and attempt redemption, all to much greater effect. He even confesses to his priest, and if you close your eyes, you can almost hear Dr. Melfi responding. It’s not quite a bad performance – the big guy is a surprisingly talented singer – but we still see Tony Soprano when we look at him.


Scenes between Gandolfini and Buscemi, in which they talk sexual shop while working on a construction site, are especially unfortunate, considering the same two actors’ shared story arc in the fifth season of The Sopranos was one of the greatest in the series’ run.


Winslet, while she looks better than ever, is made to deliver some of the most unsexy “dirty talk” in the history of cinema, while doing so in a bizarre cockney accent that doesn’t fit the movie.


The film doesn’t completely waste its great cast, though. The Broadway legend Elaine Stritch has a funny cameo as Gandolfini’s mother, while Eddie Izzard shows up, to great effect, as a church choir leader. And odd as the movie is throughout, it does end quite sweetly.  


Roger Ebert likes to quote his late friend Gene Siskel’s test of what makes a good film: “Is this movie more interesting than a documentary of all the same actors having lunch?” Romance & Cigarettes – though Ebert himself was one of its few critical champions – fails that test.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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