Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is overweight, pig-headed and smokes far too many cigarettes, yet is not only married to dressmaker Kitty Kane (Susan Sarandon), but he’s also seeing Tula (Kate Winslet) on the side. When Kane finds out about this, she understandably seeks out Tula, whilst Nick attempts to please all of the many women in his life. Meanwhile, we also deal with the romantic tribulations of Nick and Kitty’s daughters, their friend, their neighbours, Nick’s colleague and Kitty’s cousin. Whilst singing. And, occasionally, dancing too.
There are few feelings greater in the world, in my opinion, than discovering a film you’d never heard about before, purchasing it on a whim, taking it home, watching it and loving every damn second of it. It leaves you with a feeling of accomplishment and adventure, not dissimilar to how Indiana Jones must feel upon unearthing some long forgotten artefact, or when John Hammond uncovers a new mosquito laden with untapped DNA from which he can create some more dinosaurs. However, it also leaves me annoyed and perturbed at the world, as to how such a film can have been ignored by so many, yet simultaneously be so wonderfully entertaining. Romance and Cigarettes, for me, is such a film, however the rationale behind why so few haven’t discovered it is an easy one to comprehend.
Firstly, it doesn’t star anyone huge. Even though this was released in 2005, at the height of The Sopranos‘ popularity, James Gandolfini was still a far more recognisable face than a name. Susan Sarandon was past her box office prime, and Kate Winslet is almost a supporting player. Yes, the other supporting roles are peppered with character actors and other recognisable stars, but there’s no Clooney, Pitt, Bullock or Kidman to grab the attention of the average movie-goer. Secondly, it’s a musical, which isn’t exactly the most popular genre today, but as a film it deliberately flies in the face of the more traditional musical-lovers with crass language and sexually explicit acts and conversations. Ultimately this leaves the film in a No Man’s Land with audiences, relying on people to seek it out based on intrigue alone, which is exactly what I did.
See, the plot is fairly straightforward. A man is unsatisfied with his relationship with his wife, so he seeks love elsewhere. The fact that he’s old and overweight should have made this difficult, but the sex-crazed vixen he discovered just happens to be into that kind of thing. When his wife finds out, she’s pissed, and they argue for the rest of the film, until things find a way of working themselves out, for better or worse. There’s nothing overly innovative to be found in the script, unless you count the filth that spouts from Kate Winslet’s mouth (“Next time the flag rises, you can knock on my back door, Marlon Brando style.”). However, as soon as you overlay the musical numbers onto this, you’ve found yourself right in the middle of some inspired insanity.
The music comes out of nowhere – the cast sings along to the original tracks, to save any embarrassment – as Nick steps out of his house and sheepishly murmurs the first words to A Man Without Love, before Engelbert Humperdinck joins in and spurs him on, only to be joined by garbagemen, a man barbecuing next door, a telephone operator and a guy welding something. When the singing is complete, Nick strolls into the road, looks around the deserted street and lights a cigarette, and then the other singers all appear slowly dancing around him, before being disrupted by a woman walking through their little arrangement. I’m sure were this scene not nearly as much fun I’d find its oddness jarring, but in this world it just seems to work, and the fact that all the characters are singing along to a pre-recorded track makes it OK for me to join in too.
When you’re making a film that’s a little off kilter and requires some singing and busting of moves, there’s really only one man you can call to play a supporting role. Christopher Walken is the key performance here as Kitty’s cousin Bo, who becomes the Watson to her Holmes as they track down Nick’s mistress. Walken doesn’t have many scenes, but his are easily the best, even when he’s such a small part of them, be it playing an underwear-clad mannequin like an aire guitar, or swinging his arms like a hopped-up pendulum as he descends some stairs, I could watch his scenes all day. Bobby Cannavale also deserves some credit as Fryburg, the Prince/Elvis-mimicking beau of Mandy Moore, Nick and Kitty’s daughter. He’s clearly having a blast as a melodramatic singer attempting to kick-start his career, and it’s tremendous fun to watch. Winslet is surprisingly crude in both her dress and speech, which I’d have thought may have been a direct influence on the version of herself she played in Ricky Gervais’ Extras, had the two not been released at roughly the same time.
Susan Sarandon was a little disappointing, but only in that she didn’t seem to bring a great deal to the role. I’ve never been her biggest fan, nor do I hold anything against her, I just wasn’t blown away by her part, whereas James Gandolfini’s character seems to have been written specifically for him, which may well have been the case. My main issue is with the three younger female characters portrayed by Mandy Moore, Mary Louise Parker and Aida Turturro, and how much time was given over to them. Especially Aida Turturro, who I’m guessing was cast because her brother directed the film, and she was probably fairly integral in getting Gandolfini on board, seeing as she played his sister on The Sopranos. Anyway, I’m not a fan of hers, as she always plays characters that irk me in some way, and here is no different. This would be better if she was even needed in the film at all, which she isn’t, her character’s interactions could have been easily handled by the two daughters, of whom Parker is given far shorter shrift than she deserves.
This is the only film John Turturro has directed that I’ve seen so far, and I do keep meaning to check out the likes of Mac, Illuminata and this year’s effort, Fading Gigolo, which sounds like his most commercial work to date, featuring a cast including Woody Allen, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber. His directorial style is competent, even confident in places, particularly with the camera movement and the staging of the dance sequences. His intercutting between Walken’s diner scene is wonderful, as is his use of multi-level scenes, with characters at different levels of background doing different things at the same time.
Do yourself a favour and seek out this film. Feel free to question the ridiculous parts (Eddie Izzard as the priest leader of a choir? pregnant dancing? why the heck is there a belly dancer in a diner?), just also make sure your mind is free enough to just let the craziness wash over you and take you along for the ride.
Choose film 9/10