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Breaking Up IS Hard to Do: James Gandolfini and Kate Winslet agree to disagree in 'Romance and Cigarettes.'

Tonsil Tearing

'Romance and Cigarettes': Tony Soprano sings!

By Richard von Busack

A MIX of great flavors that didn't belong together, John Turturro's atrocious Romance & Cigarettes is a weird, weird beast. It's like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as if directed by madcap porn star Ron Jeremy, with credited rewrites by Charles Bukowski. The mix of realism and MGM-style musical widescreen goes down like sugar-frosted lasagna. Break down the components, and Turturro's idea is not bad: a realistic musical about the plight of an Italian-American construction worker called Nick Murder. Commuting home to the swamplands outside JFK, Murder (James Gandolfini) stops for a quick tryst with a mysterious redhead. His wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), is wise, having discovered a pornographic love letter—shades of Atonement. She locks the husband out of the bedroom. The boycott is enforced by Murder's three daughters: tattooed punk-rocker Mary-Louise Parker, innocent Baby (Mandy Moore, the only one in the movie who can sing big enough for a musical, and so of course she's neglected), and the soft-witted Rosebud (Aida Turturro).Now freed to see his mistress, Nick finds disenchantment. The redhead is revealed as lingerie salesman and motor-mouthed redhead Tula (Kate Winslet). She takes Nick on the fabled bus to funkytown. Tula has the dirtiest vocabulary ever heard outside the golden age of porn: actress Lee Carroll is the referent, I believe, but I'd need to check this with Susie Bright. (Romance & Cigarettes name-drops Sausalito's own John Leslie but not any famous female horizontalists, sadly.) Despite this pornucopia, Nick bathes in remorse and physical pain. First, he undergoes an adult circumcision to please his tart. Then he ends up hospitalized, farting to beat the band, after devouring four pounds of licorice. Showing the physical side of romance is what movies are all about, but Romance & Cigarettes is relentlessly kitschy. Take a Village Peopleish number of smoke-daubed fireman turning their "hoses" on the fire (crotch) they can't extinguish. (It's Winslet in scarlet, writhing around in an open window). She shakes one of the best racks in cinema today, God bless her, but spoofing passion is less interesting than trying to make it really hot.

The puttin'-on-the-hits soundtrack includes Vicki Carr, Engelbert Humperdink and Janis Joplin; but the stunt-singing performers never reach the music's soul. Turturro's attempts to fill his widescreen with dancers only make the prosaic backgrounds look more prosaic. Christopher Walken's dance to Tom Jones' murder song "Delilah" reaches up for a second, but mostly it shows that there are a few movies even beyond Walken's power of redemption.

Once there was a guy named Dennis Potter who carried off this mix of working-class realism and musical lyricism. Turturro's title promises romance, but the film's idea of man/woman relations is either noisy burlesque humping or a wife's movie-long slow burn. Romance & Cigarettes reinforces the old marital wisdom: sure, everyone loves exciting new nookie, but eventually you have to settle down with that someone who cares enough to get a shovel and bury you when you croak. A bit on the bleak side for romance, and they sure aren't going to let you smoke in the theater.

Movie Times ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (R; 105 min.), written and directed by John Turturro, photographed by Tom Stern and starring James Gandolfini opens Nov. 30.

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