How did one of the most magical films of the
2005 festival season become one of the hardest films of 2007
to see? John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" is
the real thing, a film that breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious
originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic
liberty. The actors toss their heads and run their mouths like
prisoners let loose to race free.
The story involves a marriage at war between
a Queens high-steel worker named Nick (James
Gandolfini) and his tempestuous wife Kitty (Susan
Sarandon), who has found a poem he wrote to his mistress (Kate
Winslet), or more accurately to that part of her he most treasures.
After Kitty calls him a whoremaster (the film
is energetic in its profanity), they stage a verbal battle in
front of their three grown daughters, and then he escapes from
the house to do -- what? To start singing along with Engelbert
Humperdinck's "A Man
Without Love," that's what.
He dances in the street and is joined by a
singing chorus of garbagemen, neighbors and total strangers.
What do I mean by "singing
along"? That we hear the original recordings and the voices
of the actors, as if pop music not only supplies the soundtrack
of their lives, but they sing along with it. The strategy of weaving
in pop songs continues throughout and is exhilarating, reminding
me of Woody
Says I Love You.”
Gandolfini and Sarandon, who portray a love
that has survived but is battered and bitter, are surrounded
by their "armies," as
Nick describes them to a cop. She has their three young adult daughters
Moore and Aida
Turturro), her cousin Bo (Christopher
Walken) and the church choir director (Eddie
Izzard). He has his work partner (Steve
Buscemi) and of course his mistress, who works in a sex lingerie
Now that I have made this
sound like farce, let me make it sound like comedy, and then romance.
The dialogue, by Turturro, has wicked timing to turn sentences
around in their own tracks. Notice how Nick first appeals to his
daughters, then shouts, "This is between your mother and me!" Listen
to particular words in a Sarandon sentence that twist the knife.
Observe a scene in Gandolfini's hospital room. He
is being visited by his mother (Elaine Stritch) and Buscemi (eating
the Whitman's Sampler he brought as a gift). She tells them both
something utterly shocking about her late husband, in a monologue
that is off the wall and out of the room and heading for orbit.
Then observe Buscemi's payoff reaction shot, which can be described
as an expression of polite interest. I can draw your attention
to the way he does that, the timing, the expression, but I can't
do it justice. Actors who can give you what Stritch gives you,
and who can give you Buscemi's reaction to it, should look for
a surprise in their pay packets on Friday.
Now as to Winslet's mistress, named Tula. She is
not a tramp, although she plays one in Nick's life. She actually
likes the big lug, starting with his belly. She talks her way through
a sex romp Russ Meyer would envy, and then is so tender to the
big, sad guy that you wanna cry. Although the characters in this
movie are familiar with vulgarity, they are not limited to it,
and "Romance & Cigarettes" makes a slow, lovely U-turn
from raucous comedy to bittersweet regret.
The movie got caught in its own turnaround as
MGM and United Artists changed hands, was in limbo for a time, has
now been picked up by Sony for DVD release (next year) and is in
the meantime being personally distributed by Turturro. He had a hit
run at Film Forum in New York, went into limited national release
Nov. 9, and comes to Chicago's Music Box today
So many timid taste-mongers
have been affronted by the movie that it's running 33 percent on
the TomatoMeter, so let me run my own RebertoMeter, which stands
at 100, and includes these quotes: "It's the most original
picture by an American director I've seen this year, and also the
most delightful" (Andrew
O'Hehir, Salon); "More raw vitality pumping through 'Romance & Cigarettes'
than in a dozen perky high school musicals" (Stephen Holden,
New York Times); "Turturro's energetic, stylish musical about
love, sex and death is such an outrageous film that it's almost
impossible not to adore it" (Geoff Andrew, Time Out London),
and "Four stars and both of my thumbs way up!" (me).