December 6, 2007


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Romance & Cigarettes (R)
Kate Winslet is like some magical, curse-spouting angel in Romance & Cigarettes, a weird, uneven musical/comedy/romance that only really serves one purpose, which is to display how wonderful Winslet is.

It is delightful to see a voluptuous (at least the Hollywood version of voluptuous) Winselt playing the sexpot, all carrot-red hair and slinky dresses. And, as anyone who has seen her in that season one episode of Extras where she (playing herself on break from playing a nun in some World War II movie) explains to another character how to execute a respectable round of phone sex knows, she can sing out profanity with verve and deftness. The addition of a fiery hair color and a burlesque performer wardrobe here makes her Tula — who dances around to a lush love song with giddy abandon — a true silly delight of a character, the grown-up, anti-fairy tale version of Enchanted’s Giselle. It’s like Bust magazine and had a foul-mouthed daughter and taught her to speak English by listening to Sex Pistols interviews.

Awesome though Tula is, she’s but a side character in this weird pageant. The hero, or anti-hero, is Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a construction worker besotted with his new mistress, Tula, but still in love with his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), who is raising three daughters: Rosebud (Aida Turturro) and Constance (Mary-Louis Parker), both of whom are improbably 40something, and Baby (Mandy Moore). The girls all play in some kind of angry grrrrl band out in the backyard (which is next to an airport) and are sometimes joined by the male singer Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) and screamed at by their neighbor Frances (Amy Sedaris). In dialogue that mixes a Shakespearean lilt with street slang and some weird stagy free verse poetry, we learn that their lives are all about love — too much, too little, too confusing. The characters belt out “Piece of My Heart,” “A Man Without Love” and “Delilah” while dancing and montaging.

Well, they don’t exactly belt out these songs. Most of the actors sing them at some volume level between “softly” and “drunken karaoke” while the song itself runs overtop, much the way it would sound, say, to your spouse if you were caught singing in the shower. The effect is, to say the least, strange but I guess it does get across the low-rent feel the movie is going for.

At least, I assume the movie is going for low-rent, in everything but its talent. “Tawdry” would best describe everything about Romance & Cigarettes, from Tula’s wardrobe to the Murders’ house. And yet the movie isn’t nearly as much fun as “tawdry” makes you think it would be. Even with Christopher Walken doing another one of those Christopher Walken impersonations, the movie is too thin on actual wackiness and too thick with contrived wackiness.

Nick tells Tula at one point that he almost loves her. I know how he feels; I almost liked Romance & Cigarettes. C+

Rated R for sexual content including some strong dialogue and language. Written and directed by John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Boroturro Inc.