‘Romance and Cigs’: Lewder, smarter than the average musical

I once caught a lot of slack for a play review written for this paper in which I confessed that the musical tended to be my least favorite form of theater. Some of you may still be inflamed. Of course what I meant is that I’m often disappointed by the lack of emotional truth or relevance of musicals, filmed or theatrical. I’ve always preferred empathy to a rollicking good time; if there’s little to be felt, the gaping cavity must be filled by rollicking greatness, nothing less.

Would that there were more tuneful treats like Romance and Cigarettes, an unpretentious musical by John Turturro, with a cast so uncanny its credits are likely to get the loose-lipped some looks in the theater. I was fortunate enough to view a DVD in the privacy of my apartment, but here is an approximate transcript of my outburst:

By the Power of Grayskull … Him?!

And her and her and her?

`In James Lipton voice:` Steve Buscemi.

And Eddie Izzard? No fucking shit!

`Gasp` Christopher Walken is in this?! Eeeeeee!

It goes on, but I’ll spare you; I expect you realize these sorts of eruptions have the potential to be almost as annoying as when some asshole couple brings their crying baby to the movies. (And if that last sentence offended you, well then you’re way too prude for this down-and-dirty film.) I was sold at James Gandolfini and Kate Winslet, quite frankly, who were the only R&C stars I was aware of when I popped in the disc. But prepare yourself for winning players Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, and Amy Sedaris as well. (Oh, right — and Mandy Moore.)

Together, in a heavily workshopped-feeling fashion, they tell a contemporary, mish-mashed Samson and Delilah breakup-makeup story set in gray Queens and quirky daydreams. Gandolfini is a middle-aged, blue-collar guy called Nick Murder; Sarandon is Kitty (Murder! Ha!), his faithful wife and the mother of his three grown daughters (all still living at home). I mention “faithful” of course because Nick’s got a case of red fever — he can’t get enough of Kate Winslet’s lusty, busty Tula, whose curly locks are as tangerine as Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine’s.

While his daughters spend their days rehearsing their backyard rock band, Nick confides in his construction buddy Angelo (Buscemi) about his extra-marital conundrum. Kitty, having learned of the affair, turns to God (Izzard is her parish’s choirmaster; excellent) and to her favorite cousin Bo (a priceless Walken, speaking in lyrics when he isn’t singing them).

The film has an uncalculated sense of peculiarity to it. The atmosphere is just surreal enough for songs from Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, and Connie Francis to be worked in organically, and, as the cast members aren’t singers, per se, their voices are often featured along with — or are completely drowned out by — the original musical numbers, creating a sing-along kind of purity. This likeable humility bleeds into the dance numbers, each of which is fun and pleasantly choreographed. Romance and Cigarettes doesn’t feign to be Broadway or a Broadway adaptation: The flaws, if you can call them that, of the production lend themselves perfectly to the emotional honesty of the film and its pedestrian, potty-mouthed poets of characters. High praise from a musical-hater, yeah?

Romance and Cigarettes
Writ. & dir. John Turturro; feat. James Gandolfini,
Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi,
Mary-Louise Parker, Christopher Walken, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Amy Sedaris (R)

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