John Turturro’s ‘Romance & Cigarettes’ (2005)

Kate Winslet in 'Romance & Cigarettes'

How do people interact with music in their daily lives? For some it’s an escape, a distraction from routine. Some people use music as a means to express themselves in ways that other communication doesn’t allow them. For others it’s simply noise in the background of their life. John Turturro calls his third outing as a writer-director Romance & Cigarettes a “homemade musical,” and it offers a look at how music functions, particularly as escapism, for a working-class New York neighborhood.

While other musicals have had working-class characters, the fact that the stories were about the working class didn’t affect the style of their presentation. They still had the talented singers, skilled choreography, and slick production of any other musical. Turturro takes the fact that his characters are working-class and seemingly makes Romance & Cigarettes with the idea of What if the working class made a musical? Several members of the cast have musical or dancing talents: Susan Sarandon appeared in the 1975 cult classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Kate Winslet has sung in many of her films and even released the single “What If”; Christopher Walken was originally trained as a dancer; and Mandy Moore is, of course, a pop singer. However, with the exception of maybe Walken, none of these actors are known as musical theater actors, and lead James Gandolfini has no musical or dancing experience that I can tell. Carrying a tune seems to be the extent of Gandolfini’s talents. The lack of professional training amongst the leads and much of the supporting cast gives the musical numbers a delightfully raw yet heartfelt quality. While Turturro does employ professionals as background dancers for some of the numbers, he also recruits actual firemen and shop workers to dance in some chorus lines, which further creates the impression that this is what it might look like if a working-class community suddenly burst into song and dance. There’s a lack of polish that’s both refreshing and inviting.

Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, an overweight bridge construction worker with cataracts, who is cheating on his wife Kitty (Sarandon). When she discovers the affair, Kitty calls on her cousin Bo (Walken) to help her find Nick’s mistress, a dirty-mouthed sexpot named Tula (Winslet). All of the characters feel trapped in their their respective lives. Turturro includes a lot of footage of planes taking off overhead, trains running, but none of the characters are ever on them. Nick spends his whole day sitting on a bridge, something that’s supposed to get people from one side of something to another, and yet he doesn’t go anywhere. The characters can’t seem to make it out of their neighborhood. The Murders’ three daughters, two of whom look to be in their 30s, still live at home. The “cool guy” on the block is pushing 30 as well and is trying the same moves he used to pick up older sister Connie to seduce teen-aged Baby. Nick is developing cataracts, losing his eyesight and he feels limited by his failing body, which is why he responds to Tula, who is frustrated by her job selling lingerie to rich, bored housewives, when she says that she thinks he’s sexy.

Susan Sarandon in 'Romance & Cigarettes'

With the exception of a couple snippets performed by the Murder daughters, none of the music was written specifically for the film. All of the songs are pop tunes, mostly from the 1960s and earlier, and most aren’t very familiar. “Piece of My Heart” and “I Want Candy” were the only ones that I recognized. Many of the songs are used for fantastical music and dance numbers, but some of them are framed as part of everyday life, demonstrating how music interweaves with the day-to-day. Though it does turn into more of a musical number, “Piece of My Heart” as well as another gospel-sounding song are performed by a church choir, and for many people music allows them to express their faith and communicate with god. When Nick is talking on the phone with Tula, he turns on the radio to afford them some privacy. The Murder daughters and Fryburg are in bands, hoping that music might be a means for them to find fame. And when Nick is trying to court Kitty after dumping Tula he sings her a song, both reminding Kitty of a shared experience and expressing his feelings in a way he might not be able to with just words. As for cousin Bo, he obviously idolizes Elvis Presley, a persona that he borrows perhaps to escape his daily life but definitely because it makes him feel good.

Across the board the acting is very solid, but Kate Winslet pretty much steals the movie, affecting what I’m told is a fairly credible Lancashire accent to play dirty-talking, foul-mouthed Tula. She also proves herself to be a pretty good dancer as well. Steve Buscemi also has a memorable but smaller part as Nick’s co-worker Angelo. I found it odd that Mary-Louise Parker and Eddie Izzard have such small parts, and I suppose it’s a testament to Turturro that they appear in the film. While I can find no fault with his acting, James Gandolfini was a drawback for me because I’m not a big fan of his work. But despite his size, Gandolfini gives a very gentle, non-threatening quality to Nick that surprised me.

The film feels a little uneven in regards to tone, beginning as light entertainment but ending on a very somber note. If Romance & Cigarettes were a boat, one end would be heavier the other, which would cause the boat to sink. I like that the trajectory of the film isn’t toward a idyllic, happy ending, but Turturro needn’t kill anyone. And while I like Bo, I find the inclusion of his character puzzling seeing as he doesn’t have a character arc. I think Turturro included Christopher Walken because of his undeniable dancing talent, but I would have preferred he cast Walken as Nick and cut Bo’s storyline. I think Bo cuts into Kitty’s character development.

I like that Turturro includes men and women of all shapes and sizes in his cast. Even playing the sexpot, Kate Winslet has a little heavier body type than usual because she had recently given birth to her son Joe. He also presents some refreshing portrayals of gender. None of men are stereotypically masculine and Nick is even a little feminized. Men are criticized for being oversexed, but Turturro shows through Nick that they can be redeemed. The women also seem to have control over their bodies and their sexualities, which is more significant than it may sound. Romance & Cigarettes may not be a perfect film, but from script to style to music it is definitely unique. And sometimes that’s really all I ask for in a movie.

James Gandolfini in 'Romance & Cigarettes'

One Response to “John Turturro’s ‘Romance & Cigarettes’ (2005)”

  1. 1 Thinking about ‘DRONES’ | this to say about that

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