It's easy to see why John Turturro's long-shelved movie musical Romance & Cigarettes never got a major theatrical release. This working-class battle of the sexes doesn't even bother to sugarcoat the relationships between characters when they break into pop songs from the '60s and '70s. Sex, love and sad, funny truths come together in one of the most unique musical experiences I've ever had.
James Gandolfini stars as Nick Murder, a married bridge builder from Queens who deals with his midlife crisis by getting a little on the side. His wife (Susan Sarandon) finds one of the raunchy poems Nick wrote to his lingerie-selling mistress (Kate Winslet), sparking some serious introspection on the part of the married couple. What is love after so many years of marriage? Thankfully, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Connie Francis, and Dusty Springfield can help the couple, the mistress, and all the lovers and lovelorn residents of Queens figure some things out.
What a shocking joy it is to watch John Turturro unleash his male characters in a world where they and their ids can dance and play without concern for tact. Where there's no tact, you will most certainly find honesty. In Romance & Cigarettes, honesty often comes in the form of a pop-infused musical number.
Don't confuse Turturro's film with Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge!, though. In fact, Luhrmann's penchant for romantic overindulgence may very well be the antithesis of what we get from Romance & Cigarettes. With its surreal, lusty antics and a genuine, deeply affecting take on love and companionship, Romance & Cigarettes runs along an impossible line few musicals can even say they walked.
Musical veterans like Susan Sarandon (Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Christopher Walken (Hairspray, Pennies From Heaven) lend so much to the film, not as singers, but as performers. All of the pop songs play through with the actual vocal track of the original singer intact, demanding that Walken, Sarandon and the rest give caricaturish performances instead of just focusing on song and dance. I never felt that Turturro required much else from his actors. As writer/director, he retains responsibility for the emotional resonance, and does it well.
Romance & Cigarettes is classic and modern, sophisticated and uncouth, all at once. With little concern for the constraints of time, space or narrative convention, this pop musical dares to be different, even a little nonsensical. It doesn't romance viewers like most films do. Yet, after my fourth viewing in two weeks, I can say without any tentativeness that I love this movie.
Romance & Cigarettes is now playing is cities with theaters willing to show the film. Check your local listings for showtimes.