While sinfully under the radar, Romance & Cigarettes should probably be understood as one of the smartest musicals of the 21st century. It comes as no surprise that the film’s anarchic nature offended many of the more timorous viewers in its audience, providing the reason for its gross lack of recognition. Regardless, John Turturro’s directorial debut is something which stands alone in its originality. I say this because I’m yet to see anything like it. Turturro offers the perfect blend of comedy, obscurity, darkness and romance, all carried and amplified by a classic and hilarious soundtrack.
It seems as though Romance encapsulates Turturro’s mind perfectly. There’s a certain madness present behind the actor and it feels like his debut as writer and director works to explore – at least on some level – the nature of his character in a great deal more depth. Of course, it would be strange if a piece of work tied to John Turturro did not include the help of Joel and Ethan Coen. The two sibling filmmakers are more than familiar with working beside Turturro in the past, collaborating on numerous occasions in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou?. This time the Coen brothers produce, and for this reason, Romance & Cigarettes contains many elements of their highly distinct stamp.
The story is based in working-class New York, revolving around the marriage of iron worker, Nick Murder and his wife, Kitty (James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon). Married a long time, Nick’s head is turned towards Lingerie Salesgirl Tula (Kate Winslet). Though, good-natured, hardworking and loving towards his wife, Nick’s vice is falling for temptation and being blinded by his urges. When Kitty uncovers her husband’s affair through a poem, Nick is unashamedly kicked out of the house, only to enter a state of contemplation and redemption.
Supported by a stellar cast including Christopher Walken as the family’s peculiar “Cousin Bo”, Steve Buscemi as Nick’s colleague, Angelo, alongside priceless performances by Eddie Izzard and Mandy Moore, each character is richer than the next. And remarkably, each seems to be struggling with the same relentless challenges posed by reality. In this way, when the going gets tough, when words are no longer enough, the characters use song as their escape. Take, for example, Nick breaking into Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love,” after the discovery of the poem, and his escape into the street. Or Christopher Walken’s unfailingly entertaining sing-along to Tom Jones’ classic “Delilah”.
Turturro’s dialogue is witty and sharp, recited by the actors with passion and profanity. And then the scenes are elevated by song, viewers are thrown into a somewhat surreal world coloured by the music of James Brown, Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley and Cyndi Lauper – amusingly lip-synched by the cast. Romance & Cigarettes is certainly an intelligent film. It is also an incredibly honest one. The difficulties faced by Turturro’s characters are real and relatable. Life can be miserable, though perhaps a strange beauty is ever-lingering above us.
“Two… two things a man should know how to do. Be romantic and smoke his brains out” – Nick Murder