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Romance & Cigarettes

Made in 2004, there's a good reason Romance & Cigarettes took so long to get to the theaters: Despite its all-star cast, John Turturro's bizarre foray into musical theater is a weird, almost unwatchable vanity piece.


Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is a depressed ironworker who lives in a working-class section of Queens with his wife (Susan Sarandon) and three daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro). To assuage his mid-life crisis, he begins having a wild affair with a foul-mouthed lingerie saleswoman (Kate Winslet), who is roughly the same age as his children. As the plot evolves and the love triangle among husband, wife, and mistress comes to its inevitable conclusion, the whole family randomly breaks into song--and dance--with very weird results. Imagine a crew of Queens tough guys doing ballet moves in the street, while Nick lip synchs to an Engelbert Humperdinck tune. Romance & Cigarettes tries to emulate the cool 2004 British TV series Viva Blackpool but doesn't even come close. In fact, Romance & Cigarettes is downright plodding, a slow and dull journey that doesn't offer a spark of interest--unless seeing a punked-out Kate Winslet in sexy lingerie floats your boat.


You can say one thing for director-writer John Turturro--he certainly knows how to assemble an all-star cast. Romance & Cigarettes boasts two Academy Award winners (Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken), Oscar nominee (Winslet), and Emmy Award winners James Gandolfini, Mary-Louise Parker, Elaine Stritch, and Eddie Izzard. Add in popular actors Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Sedaris, and his sister Aida, and the result should have been a classic film. But instead, the result of all those talented actors is a seeming repetition of things they have done in the past. Gandolfini's Nick Murder is just one shade to the left of Tony Soprano, his iconic role. It's the same guy, without the mob connection. Walken's Cousin Bo is yet another weird relative to add to the actor's typical resume, as is Buscemi's best buddy and coworker to Nick. Sarandon's long-suffering wife is barely in the movie long enough to make an impression. Moore and Cannavale shine as next-door neighbors in love (and part of the same backyard rock band), but overall, the feeling of the film is that of talent wasted.


John Turturro is a wonderful actor with bigger aspirations. As a triple threat (actor/writer/director), he's made the 1992 Mac and the 1998 Illuminata, but none of his films have been distributed widely, so it is as if Turturro is making his movies to satisfy himself, and no one else. Such is the case with Romance & Cigarettes, clearly a vanity piece in which he recruited a bunch of friends (who happen to be famous) to come and indulge with him. Apparently, the usually intense and serious Turturro has long harbored a love of song and dance, and so decided to create a surreal mix of both, set against the backdrop of the kind of working-class neighborhood where he grew up. That idea could have worked, but the problem is the story itself. Spending almost two hours with a depressed middle-aged man and his dull family just doesn't make for a good time at the movies, no matter how much singing you throw in. Interestingly enough, the film is presented by the Coen brothers, whose latest flick No Country for Old Men is one of the best of 2007. Odd that Turturro didn't get a little more advice from those Oscar-winning writer/directors on how to make a movie worth the price of admission.

Bottom Line rated this film 1 1/2 stars.