If John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" had been financed and released by a studio, it would have been a calamity on the level of Francis Ford Coppola's infamous "One from the Heart." That's not meant to be an insult. Though "One from the Heart" was one of many Hollywood productions (Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" among them) that hearkened the last gasp of the much-hallowed days of Seventies filmmaking, when directors were given big budgets and free reign to experiment on large canvases, it was also a gloriously earnest film that purposely, necessarily alienated its audience in order to collapse conventional narrative parameters--much in the same way it literally collapsed space and walls with its innovative use of video technology and breakaway sets. "Romance & Cigarettes," like "One from the Heart," is an interiorized musical set somewhere between stark lower middle-class reality and all-consuming artifice--also like that film, it's not entirely successful in its aims, often poking around rather than rooting to its characters' emotional core. Yet the labor of Turturro's love is evident in nearly every frame.
The writer-director's infectious daring has spread to all of his actors, and this is the sort of uncommonly blessed cast that only a fellow beloved actor could wrangle for such a tenuous idea. James Gandolfini sports a moustache to go along with his usual harried-husband flop sweat as construction worker Nick Murder (an odd name connoting film noir, but, despite its title and poster design, the film is hardly noir), who lives in a loveless marriage to the viciously unsatisfied Kitty (Susan Sarandon--thankfully in a lead role again, as opposed to all the glorified cameos she seems to be doing of late).
Also living with Nick and Kitty in their retro suburban Queens house are their three daughters, played, with ascending levels of interest by Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, and Mary-Louise Parker. When Nick's fantasizing of, and eventual affair with local "crude broad," Brit hottie Tula (a memorably slatternly Kate Winslet, picking fried chicken out of her teeth after sex) gets him into irrevocable hot water with all the women in his house, Turturro begins to stage the characters' inner lives as colorful, choreographed sing-alongs to (mostly) Sixties tunes.
Yet as much as it would seem to follow the template of recent musical spectacles, such as "Everyone Says I Love You" or "Dancer in the Dark," in which the musical numbers exist as pastichey escapes from the everyday, "Romance & Cigarettes" maintains a tone of heightened, perhaps Cassavetes-inspired performativity throughout--try to find the true reality. It's nearly exhausting, with its nonstop outpouring of bizarre, poetic-trashy dialogue, alternately velvety and curdled surfaces (perfectly represented in the film's opening shot, which sensuously tracks out from an impossibly close screen filling image of Gandolfini's big toe), and endless walk-ons by manic players in amusing bits, from Elaine Stritch to Amy Sedaris to the by-now rote but admittedly still funny Christopher Walken appearance.
Turturro is obviously less interested in music (even the best showstoppers, from songs by Janis Joplin and Tom Jones, have a sputtering cinematic rhythm, hampered as they are by too much cutting between different spaces and scenes) than in his actors, and they're all here to indulge him and themselves in this good-natured little game. When Turturro tries to reinvest pathos towards the end, the film falls a little flat, though he wisely avoids outright sentimentality. It's the nonsense that works best here: the too-enormous slices of lemon-meringue pie, the ludicrously oversized bowls of black licorice. And in one scene, Parker's punk daughter delivers a non sequitur rap about pork chops that just might be "Romance and Cigarettes"'s ridiculous highlight.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]