Making a film musical that is not hopelessly twee (or based on a well established broadway show) is pretty ambitious these days, unless you’re in Bollywood. Fortunately, John Turturro’s first directorial effort Romance & Cigarettes rates alongside Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark and Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge as one of the few film musicals of recent years to rejuvenate what was once a classic, mainstream genre.

With a script whose linguistic flair recalls both Shakespeare and the more brutal postmodern dramatists, Turturro guides us through the romantic life of Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon), and mistress Tula (Winslet), alongside the antics of their daughters, Rosebud (Aida Turturro), Constance (Mary Louise Parker) and Baby (Mandy Moore) who spend their time practicing riot grrl style tunes in the garden. The songs that illuminate the narrative are drawn predominantly from the American crooner tradition Cousin Bo’s (Christopher Walken) lament to the tune of Tom Jones’ Delilah is a particular highlight, (with Walken reprising his dance skills from Spike Jonze’s music video for Weapon Of Choice,) in a choreography sequence that can only be described as Westside Story meets Zorba the Greek, with a touch of stabbing and bellydancing.

The rough trajectory of the plot begins with Kitty’s discovery of a billet doux, from her husband to Tula. Kitty promptly embarks on a campaign of neglect, refusing to cook for Nick and absenting herself from the house on a quest to discover the identity of her husband’s mistress.

Nick has been seeing Tula for only a short time, but her appeal is readily apparent a scarlet haired temptress with a job selling “fuck bloomers” at Agent Provocateur, and a command of foul language that would make Lenny Bruce’s balls shrivel up.

This role should send Winslet hurtling even further away from her previous typecasting as a tragic, English rose and she is refreshingly vulgar as the physically lush Tula. In an effort to meet what he believes are his younger mistress’ true desires, Nick even undergoes adult circumcision. Tula rewards this act of mutilation with a several hours of eye rolling and athletic sex in a sleazy motel room.

Kitty vents her anger at church with the aid of a vociferous choirmaster (Eddie Izzard) and the work of Janis Joplin. Soon, she is joined by her cousin Bo a hilarious, ageing Lothario with a cream Cadillac and fondness for Barry White, who acts as her companion in pursuing revenge. When he and Kitty finally discover Tula’s place of work, Kitty confronts her rival, resulting in one of the most entertaining on screen catfights since Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!

In counterpoint to all the adult anguish going on around them, teen lovers Baby (Moore) and Fryburg (Bobby Canavale) quote disco classics at each other and make out. When they decide to get engaged, it is Fryburg who go go dances on the picnic table in a white suit (clearly a metrosexual homage to John Travolta’s in Saturday Night Fever) while Baby and her sisters perform a mean version of I Want Candy, consolidating his position as toy boy. It is not long, however, before the the film makes the transition from comedy to tragedy. In a sequence performed underwater, (it all goes a bit Tori Amos here) Tula voices her true feelings for Nick and other characters’ emotions also bubble to the surface.

Viewers shouldn’t be put off by the musical element, nor should they expect the slickness of something like Chicago. This is a hilarious, shocking, and in the end, moving film. It’s a remarkably unusual effort, but even more so for a first time director. Tuturro evidently has a unifying vision, one we can hope to see more from in the future.

Reviewed on 23 Mar 2006

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