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REVIEW

Smoke (and sleaze) gets in their eyes

'Romance & Cigarettes' is a decidedly unconventional ensemble musical from John Turturro and the Coens.

December 21, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

How weird is John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes"? Almost indescribably weird, though also strangely involving. A Coen brothers-produced postmodern musical in the vein of "The Singing Detective," it's set in a rundown section of Queens where Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a middle-aged ironworker, is cheating on his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), with a redheaded Irish nymphomaniac named Tula (Kate Winslet) while resolutely smoking himself to death. Enthusiastically smutty and lyrical, the movie attempts to capture the way we unconsciously set the emotional moments of our lives to pop music, turning fits of passion, anger and righteous indignation into elaborate musical numbers in our heads.

Of course, there's no arguing with this observation, but the effect is jarring at first, and I found myself wondering what in the world I was looking at. The feeling was compounded by the awkwardness of the stagy dramatic sequences between songs, which have, intentionally, the pitch and cadence of Greek drama. (Strangely, the musical fantasy sequences feel much more naturalistic somehow.) The cast couldn't be better or more interesting, though some of the actors, such as Mary-Louise Parker, feel wasted in roles that don't quite amount to anything. Gandolfini displays his usual brute force magnetism. Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi are hilarious as Kitty's Elvis-obsessed cousin Bo and Nick's salacious co-worker, respectively. And Winslet pulls out all the stops as the funny, needy, raunchy, heartbreaking Tula. Parker, Aida Turturro and Mandy Moore appear, not terribly successfully, as Nick's three daughters -- the weird one, the slow one and the hope of the family (Bobby Cannavale is repellently hilarious as the sleazy guy she's going to throw herself away on).

Some of the most glorious song-and-dance sequences involve Walken -- a slinky dancer if ever there was one -- getting revenge on his cheating ex-wife to the tune of Tom Jones' "Delilah" and Nick imagining Tula as the character in the Buena Vista Social Club song "El Cuarto de Tula," the one with the room on fire, as a group of dirty firefighters try to extinguish her flames. Bucking musical convention, the movie ends on a downbeat note, suggested by the title, dragging down the proceedings. "Romance & Cigarettes" is at its best when it's life-affirming, even -- or maybe especially -- when it's affirming its more down-and-dirty aspects.

carina.chocano@latimes.com

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"Romance & Cigarettes." MPAA rating: R for sexual content including some strong dialogue, and language. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. In limited release.

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