Director: John Turturro
“There’s a lot of things in this pothole of a life that don’t make sense,” Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) tells his youngest daughter Baby (Mandy Moore) in writer/director John Turturro’s self-described “down and dirty musical love story,” produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Romance & Cigarettes. Turturro originally had the first inklings of an idea for the film in the 1980’s before beginning to write it when portraying a struggling screenwriter himself in the 90’s in the Coens' Barton Fink and, after directing his two earliest pictures Mac and Illuminata, Turturro finally got the chance to bring this startlingly sexual, overwhelmingly crude, yet undeniably original musical to life.
Despite the production being postponed for nearly two years due to James Gandolfini’s commitment to the HBO series The Sopranos, Turturro spent those years securing the rights to the songs he’d chosen (IMDb) for his trashy firecracker salute to musicals that told the story of blue collar ironworker Nick Murder whose dressmaking wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) discovers he’s been betraying her as well as bailing on his duty to his three daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro) by having an affair with the sultry, British, lingerie-selling redheaded harlot Tula (Kate Winslet).
Now dubbed a “whoremaster” by his betrayed wife who runs to church to take her frustration out with a stirring rendition of “Piece of My Heart” along with Eddie Izzard and the rest of the choir, Nick is relegated to the fact that according to him “marriage is combat” and he must fend for himself opposite his wife’s army (the three daughters) even if it means that Kitty will no longer be preparing his dinner. Nick ends up going to extremes to satisfy his "mistress in heat" Tula who we’re introduced to in a laughably over-the-top fire sequence and as Winslet plays the part (visibly having a ball), Tula is a woman whose dialogue is completely made up of foul lines that get even more shocking as she continues on and soon we realize that the relationship isn’t going to last even before she confesses that she “loses interest in a man as soon as he begins to care" about her. However, Turturro’s film busily occupies itself as a musical comedy of “remarriage” as Nick fights to try and win back his wife, who, meanwhile has been fantasizing about her first love Aidan Quinn and seeking revenge on the cheating Nick by conducting her own investigation along with her dangerous cousin Bo (Christopher Walken).
Despite a four star review from Roger Ebert, this Golden Lion nominee from the 2005 Venice Film Festival was labeled “loud and pointlessly crude,” by The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Bennett (9/7/05) who cleverly summed up Romance & Cigarettes with the observation that “it looks more like something that might have been made by Jesus Quintana, the wild man of the bowling alley he [Turturro] played in The Big Lewbowski.” Definitely film fodder for an acquired taste, I found myself mostly disgusted by the cinematic train-wreck created by the indisputably talented writer/director and cast, even though admittedly it was oddly compelling at times. Ultimately, Romance & Cigarettes is an unnecessarily lewd offering that never failed to inspire genuine interest in the characters who populate each frame other than the initial involuntary shock that forced viewers to pay attention similar to the way that we can’t help but stare at a fire or traffic accident, terrified and drawn in by the twisted beauty but all the while hoping that everyone gets out in one piece.