John Turturro has been plotting this unusual musical film ever since starring in Barton Fink back in 1991. The Coen Brothers, who ably directed Turturro in that film, are also the producers behind Romance & Cigarettes, which has more to do with cheating & one smoking hot babe, than with love & tobacco products.
James Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, who becomes the unlikely romantic interest of hottie Tula (Kate Winslet). But Gandolfini is also married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), who is having nothing of Murder’s affair. The meat of this film’s plot bounces back and forth between Nick/Tula love scenes, and Nick/Kitty arguments. But whenever Murder is not with one of the two women in his life, he’s receiving sex “advice” (most of it bad) from Steve Buscemi’s hilarious Angelo character. Kitty, on the other hand, most often confides in Christopher Walken’s equally funny Cousin Bo.
Romance & Cigarettes is also a musical. But it’s nothing like, say, a familiar Julie Andrews vehicle. Instead, these actors sing a lot of songs, whether they’re naturally gifted with vocal skills or not. On the one hand, Sarandon fairs surprisingly well with Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”, while Gandolfini won’t make you forget Englebert Humperdinck as he struggles through “A Man without Love”. Walken excels with “Delilah”, mainly because he’s such a smooth dancer and a downright pleasure to watch. Although big, blubbery love songs mostly comprise this soundtrack, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro and Mary-Louise Parker also offer up a girly rock band version of “I Want Candy”.
Despite its colorful Fellini-esque visual elements, Romance & Cigarettes is, in the end, a relatively generic love story. Gandolfini’s loose Murder portrayal comes nowhere close to the character complexity he memorably brought to Tony Soprano. Furthermore, we never learn why his Murder character strayed from Kitty or what attracted Tula to the blue collar Murder in the first place. There is a lot of generalizing about partnerships, make-ups and break-ups, yet little detail concerning what makes these various characters tick. And that’s a shame because Turturro wastes a wonderful cast; one that could surely have turned this experiment into something truly special.
As for the film’s title, well, Gandolfini’s character is diagnosed with lung cancer toward the film’s end so, perhaps, cigarettes symbolize the dire consequences of cheating. Sex, like nicotine, is pleasurable and addicting at first, but it can also kill you if you let it control you – that kind of thing. Even so, Murder’s dalliance with Tula never appears to be worth the risk. She doesn’t fill a need that’s missing in his life. In fact, Kitty comes off nearly faultless and hardly the kind of woman most men would even consider kicking to the curb for a younger model.
This release’s special features are few but significant. For instance, I love the way Turturro introduces each and every deleted scene. With most cinematic DVD packages, deleted scenes are strung together in a bonus section, with little rhyme or reason. But not here; Turturro explains his thinking behind leaving out particular scenes, primarily because he simply decided to go in a different direction. This personal approach gives insight into the director’s mind when editing a picture. There is also a brief documentary titled “Making a Homemade Musical”, where some of the stars describe this movie unique making experience.
When you add it all up, Romance & Cigarettes is an ambitious failure. Granted, it’s not as bad as Cop Rock and Laughlin, to name two extremely poor TV attempts at mixing music with drama. But then again, this new film is nowhere close to the greatness that is West Side Story. It’s a good concept, but alas, lacks successful execution.