About eight minutes or so into John Turturro's latest indie acting fest, Queens blue collar protag Nick Murder, played with cheesy mustache and ponchy aplomb by Tony fuckin' Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, backed up by a cacophoninous chorus line of proletarian Palooka Joe absurdity, breaks into one of the most out-of-place (and out-of-character) musical numbers ever put onto film. Luckily for Gandolfini and Turturro, this bizarre divertimento actually seems to work on some level. In fact it is none other than these very seemingly tossed-off musical moments (mostly lip-synched, or perhaps Karaoke'd is more apt, but a few actually performed by the cast, albeit ever so briefly) that keep this otherwise blandish film from boring the pants right off a person - at least this person. Granted the film may still be dangling by a mere proverbial thread (Mike D'Angelo says of the film - and probably rightly so - "it plays like a skit the actors put together to amuse themselves during downtime on some other project"), but the fun-ness had by these rather self-indulgent distractions keeps ole Damocles' sword from toppling down upon the ever-increasingly ridiculous heads of its cast.
Obviously taking many a page from his multiple collaborations with the brothers Coen (who are exec producers here), Turturro sets his sights on a world that seems much more Coen, repleat with non-sensical pseudo-poetical outbursts of both preposterous pathos and incongruous, yet sweetly mannered vulgarity, and much less anything else. Turturro sets his musical not at the beginning of a relationship but at the end - the bitter, unsatisfied, dying end. Taking the long dead-in-the-water marriage of Nick and Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and tossing in an on-again off-again on-again off-again affair with with part-time prostitute Tula (a foul-mouthed kinky Kate Winslet), Turturro elaborates not on the budding romance of typical musical lore but instead on the dying love of a marriage ending. Full of a startling cast of irregulars, Romance & Cigarettes never quite gets going, but then again it never quite falls apart either.
Though he may not keep it moving forward as smoothly as the Coens are usually capable of doing - even in their less-than great pieces - Turturro, with a frontal lobe more full of the thespianic than the cinematic, surely gives it his best (I assume) whirl and all the while his cast, led by the romantic triangulation of Gandolfini, Sarandon and Winslet, and including Mandy Moore (the only one of Gandolfini's on-screen daughters to be young enough to qualify), Steve Buscemi, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida (my brother made this movie so I can be in it no matter how annoyingly under-talented I may be) Turturro, Eddie Izzard, Amy Sedaris, the scene-stealing Christopher Walken and the even scene-stealier Bobby Cannavale, are having much more fun than they probably should be. I too had more fun than I probably should have, considering, but woo hoo, I'm a sucker for a musical - even one that ain't half bad, or half good.
Almost as if playing like a Jacques Demy or Baz Luhrmann musical gone awry (an accomplishment which, come to think of it, would not be all that difficult to achieve), Romance & Cigarettes, much less Lubitsch, much more Kitchen Sink, belts out enough energy and scenery-chewing mockery to keep this half-hearted quirky comedy-cum-musical alive and kicking throughout its more mopier moments. In fact, Walken's creepy cousin Bo ham and cheesing it up by doing his most Walkenesque take on Tom Jones' Delilah, Winslet's bawdy whore Tula, coyishly letting her broodish bedmate Gandolfini know that he can "put it in her bank" anytime he wants and then immediately discombobulating out a love song for her pudgy Prufrock as if making fun of poor hapless Sandy at a Rydell High slumber party, and Cannavale's omnisexual gelastic Fryburg channeling Richard Gere a la American Gigalo, gyrating for Mandy Moore in his leopard print man-thong, are almost enough by themselves to merit a positive filmgoing experience in pretty much anybody's book.
Sure the film may come off as ridiculous at times, and not always in that fun near-campy way mentioned above, and perhaps their is a twinge of empathetic embarrassment when watching this buttload of talent make their way through this particular cinemascape, but while the music plays...like I said, I'm a sucker for a musical. My semi-secret shame is my inexplicable admiration for even the worst in the genre (don't tell anyone, but I even liked Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band - and not just the album). Ending on about as downbeat a note as any musical this side of Dancer in the Dark has, this little film-that-could (held up in a hurry-up-and-wait status for several years) does does and does - at least while the music keeps playing (perhaps this film could have been even more salvaged by a non-stop opera-esque musical score like that of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). But maybe that's just me. Now I wonder why I have such a hankering for karaoke all of the sudden? [09/26/07]