Chockfull of ideas and with an irreverence that irresistibly recalls late ’60s American cinema, thesp John Turturro’s third outing in the helmer’s chair, “Romance & Cigarettes,” alternately shines and sputters. Gotham-set musical comedy, centered on a family in meltdown with the discovery that dad has a mistress, unleashes a choice cast on some wonderfully salty dialogue, splashy song-and-dance routines and a mixed retro setting, but has absolutely no idea how to corral everything into a sustained, cohesive whole. Festival platforming is likely to be followed by extremely specialized dates for hip, upscale urbanites.
Turturro had the idea for the title and the first few scenes while on the set of “Barton Fink” as an actor. But it wasn’t until after his second pic as a director, “Illuminata” (1998), that he worked on the project in earnest.
Eschewing an original song score, Turturro decided to use ditties — made famous by the likes of Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown and Engelbert Humperdinck — that are “anthems of our time.” Some are mimed to; others are actually sung by cast members.
From his choice of musical material to costume and production design, Turturro seems more interested in evoking a general retro feel than any specific time. Similarly, though the movie was inspired by his own childhood in Queens, New York, and location shooting is on the button, there’s no attempt to homogenize things like accents into a detailed reconstruction of one place. (Among the main leads, only James Gandolfini sports a distinctive Queens burr.)
Helmer has described the picture as “a down-and-dirty musical love story,” and a major chunk of the dialogue revolves around sex in comically graphic language. From the moment Kitty (Susan Sarandon) discovers an erotic missive to her husband, Nick (Gandolfini), from his English mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet), Nick’s average life as a suburban working-class stiff goes into freefall.
His three daughters — the youngest of whom, Baby (Mandy Moore), has the hots for a wannabe rock star, Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) — turn on him, and Brooklyn-born Kitty gives him a tongue-lashing within an inch of his life. Always ready to advise him on women is know-all Angelo (Steve Buscemi), a bridge maintenance co-worker whose sexual philosophy is fairly primeval.
First half of the movie has an appealingly loose, jazzy feel: Characters pop up onscreen when they’re being talked about, Nick fantasizes he’s Victor Mature in “Samson and Delilah” as he’s un-manned by Kitty & Co., and the lyrics of song numbers are shared between characters in several impressive montages that unite plot threads.
When the super-sexy, gutter-mouthed Tula is introduced, she gets a lavish production number gyrating in a flame-colored dress with horny firemen. Sequence, set to Elvis Presley’s “Trouble,” has no other point than to show she’s a knockout.
Turturro finally gets down to the smidgen of a plot, as Kitty calls in Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), an aging Elvis fan, to help her track down Tula. Meanwhile, Nick is undergoing a circumcision, in the belief that it will make him a better lover.
However, the forces of conservatism slowly gather round Nick and the movie itself, as he tries for a second chance with Kitty. With effectively no musical numbers, last act is surprisingly conventional in both structure and morality. It also, frankly, drags.
Turturro certainly seems to know his musicals, referencing everything from “West Side Story” to “Saturday Night Fever,” and is reasonably served by choreographer Tricia Brook, who surrounds the main cast with reined-in pro dancers.
However, the movie’s showstopper, “Delilah,” with Walken channeling Tom Jones, was choreographed by Margie Gillis, and two other standouts, “Prisoner of Love” and “Red Headed Woman,” owe their success as much to smart montage as physical staging.
Biggest problem is the script’s disorganization, which also afflicted Turturro’s two other helming outings (though less so “Mac” than “Illuminata”). Dialogue bristles with both one-liners and humorous tirades, but there’s no overall shape or rhythm to carry the audience along.
With a cast of unknowns, “R&C” wouldn’t be half the picture it is, but Turturro has corralled a cast that’s watchable even when on cruise control. With Gandolfini pretty much delivering his Italianate blue-collar dad as expected, and Buscemi and Walken ditto with their characters, it’s the distaff cast members who stand out most, with Elaine Stritch in for one brief scene that’s almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Frequently carrying the spine of the picture, Sarandon is terrific as the ballsy, never-say-die Kitty, and even manages to invest the latter scenes with some genuine emotion. Onscreen less, but blessed with the showiest role and filthiest one-liners, is Winslet as the trashy, red-haired Tula. With a perfect Lancashire accent that’s comical enough in the Gotham setting — think Jane Horrocks in “Little Voice” — Winslet throws herself into the role with an infectious gusto.
Widescreen tech package is fine at all levels, with Tom Stern’s location cinematography bringing a realistic gloss to the working-class nabe, and Donna Zakowska’s production and costume design repping all decades from the ’50s to the early ’80s.