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Romance & cigarettes


There is more raw vitality pumping through “Romance & Cigarettes,” John Turturro’s passionate ode to the sensual pulse of life in a working-class neighborhood of Queens, than in a dozen perky high school musicals. This is a movie in which a dirty mind is a good thing. Call it “The Singing Id.” Prudes, be forewarned.

“Romance & Cigarettes,” Mr. Turturro’s third film as a director, might also be described as a song-and-dance “Sopranos,” minus the crime and punishment and without most of the profanity. Stylistically, the overheated language of this kitchen-sink musical, many of whose characters are Italian-American and Catholic, belongs to the poetry of pulp.

If the film’s proudly bawdy audacity goes a long way toward compensating for its narrative shortcomings, that audacity is still a commercial liability. After bouncing around for two years, the film is being distributed by Mr. Turturro without studio backing.

The story of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a New York ironworker raked over the coals by his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), after she catches him cheating, is a breakup-and-makeup tale as rudimentary as a “Honeymooners” episode. In its final act the movie makes a sudden, awkward lurch into pathos as Nick’s smoking habit catches up with him.

The acting by a blue-ribbon cast that also includes Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, Christopher Walken and Elaine Stritch, injects the film with continual shots of adrenaline. The cast is clearly having the time of its life venting the characters’ lurid, potty-mouthed fantasies, and the excitement is contagious.

Ms. Winslet shoots the moon as Nick’s scarlet-haired girlfriend, Tula, a trash-talking lingerie clerk whose hilariously explicit speed raps catapult her character into the hall of fame of cheap British tarts. Nick is so besotted with her pornographic imagination that he undergoes an excruciating circumcision in the belief that it will improve their already sizzling sex life. His decision to go through with the procedure follows some intense debate about its pros and cons with his best friend, Angelo (Mr. Buscemi), as they labor on a bridge over the East River.

The most obvious forerunner of “Romance & Cigarettes” is the Dennis Potter television series “The Singing Detective,” which used vintage pop tunes to voice the characters’ private fantasies in much the same way. Here, the actors either lip-sync to recordings or sing along with them. Although the majority of songs date from the 1960s, they aren’t the usual musical touchstones used in movies to evoke instant nostalgia.

Songs you thought you never wanted to hear again, recycled in the right context, somehow sound fresh. After their first domestic battle, in which Kitty threatens to emasculate Nick, he barges into the street and moans Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1968 hit, “A Man Without Love.” Immediately the ears of the sanitation workers and electricians in the neighborhood perk up; they drop what they’re doing and, wielding the tools of their trade, become a choreographed blue collar chorus, lifting its collective voice in sympathetic brotherhood. Indeed, “lonely is a man without love.”

Nick and Kitty have three daughters: Baby (Ms. Moore), Constance (Ms. Parker) and Rosebud (Ms. Turturro). It’s odd to find Tony Soprano’s sister playing Nick Murder’s daughter in the movie, since the two actors are only a year apart in age. But that’s the surreal license “Romance & Cigarettes” takes without a second thought.

As Baby’s wet-lipped greaser boyfriend with rock ’n’ roll dreams, Mr. Cannavale becomes Elvis Presley, James Brown and John Travolta rolled into one slightly ludicrous package.

Many of the production numbers are crudely funny in the same way. Mr. Walken, who plays Kitty’s Elvis-obsessed cousin Bo, whom she engages to track down Tula, brings Tom Jones’s braying hit “Delilah” to a boil in a swiveling bump-and-grind production number.

Ms. Winslet, looking hot enough to burst into flames, enters the movie to the strains of the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Cuarto de Tula,” flanked by a chorus of leering firefighters equipped with hoses. Later she teases her way through Connie Francis’s “Scapricciatiello (Do You Love Me Like You Kiss Me)” and slithers underwater to Ute Lemper singing “Little Water Song.”

Ms. Sarandon’s “Piece of My Heart” becomes a betrayed wife’s wounded scream of pain, and the Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love” a hushed hymn reverently intoned by a church choir.

Late in the film Ms. Stritch makes an indelible, nonmusical appearance as Nick’s cranky, man-hating mother. Even later, when Nick tenderly growls Irving Berlin’s “Girl That I Marry” to a now mollified Kitty, you are reminded that in this blue collar haven the old dualities still apply. Wives are saints, and mistresses are whores, and all men are guilty. And the world goes ’round.

“Romance & Cigarettes” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity, intense eroticism and sexually graphic language.
Date Added: 04/28/2013 by John Turturro
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