Romance and Cigarettes, 2005
Written and Direted by John Turturro
Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is cheating on his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) with a younger woman Tula (Kate Winslet). Nick and Kitty have three daughters, played by Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, and Mary-Louise Parker. Given that Aida Turturro's character acts like a perpetual child, and Parker (who was 41 when this film was shot) gives her character the demeanor of a rebellious teenager in a band, it's pretty clear that gritty realism is not the order of the day here. It should give you some idea of the overall tone of the film to note that Christopher Walken shows up as Kitty's cousin about thirty minutes in, turns in one of his broadest, most comic performances, and fits in perfectly with the overall aesthetic. It's that kind of film.
Written and directed by John Turturro and produced by longtime friends the Coen brothers, Romance and Cigarettes is a musical that uses pop music from the last few decades to illustrate the emotional reality of a marriage that may (or may not) be failing. The triumph of the film is that we've seen these kinds of stories about marital infidelity before -- a standard film would simply be about the infidelity and the marriage, while a better film might decide to twist things a bit and go the musical route. Turturro takes the concept even further, pushing the limits of the narrative to connect scenes that are emotionally resonant, rather than directly connected. Hence the sidelines into Moore's relationship with a wannabe-rock-star neighbor, Walken's set piece involving a past lover who scorned him, and a monologue by Murder's mom (Elaine Stritch) telling tales about her father-in-law that must be heard to be believed.
This is a profoundly dirty film that ironically contains little to no nudity. Nick and Kitty use vulgarity to insult one another, Nick's friend Angelo (Steve Buscemi) uses it to puff up his manhood in describing women, and Tula uses it as a way of getting past the emotional defenses of those around her, specifically Nick. And yet these characters are all also capable of great love -- when Nick comments that there's more to life than a hard-on, Tula replies, "Well, that's where it starts, isn't it? We all got started with a hard-on."
I've been dropping names of the cast like they were candy, and that's much how Turturro uses them. He seems to have called in a lot of favors in this one, and also appearing in small roles are Eddie Izzard as a priest who looks a lot like a grown-up Malcolm MacDowell from A Clockwork Orange and Amy Sedaris as a neighbor who ends up in a confrontation with Kitty. Each performer seems to bring a huge amount of energy to the role they've been asked to play, and during a long period in the middle of the film the chaos seems to build and build, aching for the kind of climax that perhaps Nick is looking for in his personal life.
Alas, it doesn't quite get there, for the musical reaches a certain crescendo and the plot takes something of a left turn that robs the film of much of its energy. The ending is poignant, to be sure, but it seems to belong in another movie -- I don't feel it's quite earned here. Perhaps that's the point, to bring the story of Nick and Kitty to a logical conclusion, or to show how the blind workings of nature can get in the way of the life we thought we were living. Perhaps that's the meaning of the title. Perhaps. Turturro has made the film he chose to make, and while I respect his decision to end his film the way he does (and it's very well-executed, to be sure), he dials down just when I felt he should have been ramping up for the big finish, and the tone feels slightly off. It's this ending that keeps the film from true greatness.
Never mind, though, because up until the last fifteen minutes or so this movie is a delight. The cast is amazing, and the pop songs are perfectly matched to the material. Turturro has a strong and steady hand in the direction, and the surreal nature of the set pieces and the plot devices that sometimes bring these characters to their knees (figuratively and literally) are never allowed to trump the emotional reality of the scenes. If he flubs the ending, it's only because what has come before is so very good. I'm not always a fan of musicals, but this one is the kind of musical for people who don't like musicals, and at times gave me the dirtiest, happiest smile I've had in a while.