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ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken
Director:  John Turturro
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  February 12, 2008

“Two things a man should be able to do: be romantic, and smoke his brains out.”

Film ˝*

There hasn’t been such a huge gap for me in a while between how much I wanted to see a film and how badly I was eventually disappointed in it as was with Romance and Cigarettes.  Billed by writer/director John Turturro as a “dirty musical”, it was a movie that lingered without distribution for a couple of years despite his name and the names of an impressive cast.  He arranged personally for a limited release, where critical acclaim was mostly positive.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why…in fact, I even wonder if the cut seen by critics was different than the one I viewed, so great is my division with them.  Romance and Cigarettes doesn’t seem the work of a professional, or even a talented amateur with promise.  It’s sloppy, silly, classless, and shallow.

“Shallow” isn’t necessarily a critique in and of itself…if you really think about it, many of the great movie musicals can be described the same way.  But what they lack in depth, they more than make up for with whimsical charm and effervescence.  Turturro’s film wallows in crudity.  There’s no magic here.  He pushes his actors so far over the top that you spend most of the film watching them plummeting off the other side.

It stars James Gandolfini as Nick Murder, a steel worker married to Kitty (Sarandon), but having a tawdry affair with an underwear sales girl named Tula (Winslet).  As the movie opens, Kitty is enraged upon discovering a poem Nick wrote to Tula, which is basically an ode to her female parts.  They argue in front of their three daughters, and Nick walks out, bursting into song.

None of the actors apart from Kate can really sing, but that’s not the problem.  Woody Allen’s troupe didn’t have much singing talent in Everyone Says I Love You, but that film strove for something higher and reached it.  Turturro only seemed interested in finding the lowest common denominator in scene after scene.

No, what really got my goat was that the actors sing along to pre-existing songs, whether it’s Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love” or Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”.  The original vocal tracks are left in, so it’s not even karaoke.  I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s as weak and distracting as it sounds…it’s something a film student would do.

The dialogue is crass, and some critics have been defending the film Hillary Clinton style, by attacking those who don’t agree, saying we’re prudes.  I’m no prude.  I just want a point.  Being as profane and graphic in sexual descriptions is something anyone can do.  Consider Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which used the same kind of explicit language, but did so in a witty, robust and vibrant way that really brought the characters to life.  Turturro’s dialogue is not funny.  It’s not insightful.  Perhaps the biggest sin of all, it’s not sexy.

Rarely has a cast this talented been so brutally mismanaged.  Particularly Kate Winslet, who seems to be swinging for the fences in scene after scene.  It’s like she entrusted her soul to Turturro with this performance, and he gambled it away for his own pleasure.

Oh, and lest I forget, the film’s big ending is with Nick’s discovery of terminal lung cancer and quick demise.  Maybe there is at least one point to the film, and that’s that smoking is bad.  But gee, didn’t we already kind of know that?

Turturro is a gifted actor, but unlike Apassionata, this time he didn’t insert himself into the proceedings.  He mush have known how badly his actors were going to look.  Romance and Cigarettes will be a blemish on all of their careers.  A shame.

Video ***

This is a solid looking anamorphic transfer from Sony…a little softness here and there, but the overall gritty look of the picture remains intact.

Audio ***

Dialogue is clear throughout, and the songs add a bit of dynamic range.  Apart from than, not much use or need is demanded from the subwoofer or rear channels.

Features **1/2

There is a video introduction from Turturro, and he offers a commentary track with his daughter and film’s co-star Aida.  There are also deleted scenes with Turturro’s introductions, and a making-of featurette.

Summary:

Romance and Cigarettes is an off-putting, frustrating, and rather unpleasant waste of time and talent.

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