New-Release Tuesday: Romance and Cigarettes

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Another weak slate of home video releases this week… and that’s odd, because Valentine’s Day is tomorrow!

So if you have the notion of staying home for some V-Day fun, I have a quirky, offbeat recommendation which is decidedly designed for couples only. I’m not sure you’ll actually find Romance and Cigarettes romantic… but it might ignite a thing or two. If you don’t hang out with dockworkers (or film producers) on a regular basis, this film is going to push a few buttons… and boundaries. If, however, you’ve ceased to be shocked by anything that Scorsese or the Coens or Game of Thrones ever dished out, this might feel as comfortable as an old slipper (filled with tacks and broken glass).

Again, don’t plan on watching this with the kiddoes around. Nope.

So. Four things you should know about Romance and Cigarettes.

First, my favorite series of scenes in the Coens’ Barton Fink features conversations between Fink (played by Romance director John Turturro) and Madman Mundt. The latter is a traveling salesman who is something of a natural storyteller. Fink, meanwhile, is a struggling screenwriter. Repeatedly, just as Mundt is about to launch off into a real mind-bender of an entertaining tale, Fink rather obsessively diverts into a tirade about what an important artist he is, and how concerned he is about telling the Story of the Common Man. Finally, Mundt just shrugs his shoulders and resignedly mutters, “I could tell you stories…” Yes, we bet he could, if only Fink would shut up. Well, Romance and Cigarettes is kind of like Turturro not shutting up. At all.

Second, one of the most surprising moments in Romance and Cigarettes comes during one of “hero” Nick Murder’s naps. His daughter Constance places a lighted cigarette between Nick’s big and second toes—and walks out of the room. We know what follows is going to hurt, and hurt a lot.

Third, Romance and Cigarettes is a period musical (of sorts) in which characters burst into sing-alongs with ’50s and ’60s standards. And let’s be clear about this: the characters don’t lip-synch re-recordings of these songs, or even lip-synch to the original recordings: they sing along with the original recordings—and we “get to” listen to them as they sing along, and as they shuck and jive their way through relatively under-rehearsed choreography. It’s like being trapped with a very large family of vaudevillians in a Chevy Van at a drive-in theater during a screening of The Sound of West Side Sopranos. With James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon, and Christopher Walken… who was raised by vaudevillians.

Fourth, distribution of Romance and Cigarettes was held up for nearly two years because no one thought there was a market for this film. (And there wasn’t, of course; but it has caught on as a cult film for a fan base of folks who most probably never visit an actual theater.)

Oh, wait: number five. About Romance and Cigarettes being written and directed by John Turturro. The idea was conceived by the actor while playing Barton Fink. The title and opening musical numbers were actually typed by Turturro’s Fink on Fink’s clunky typewriter as the Coen brothers filmed. Not surprisingly, I guess, Romance and Cigarettes feels like it was written and directed by Barton Fink on one of his more manic days. We can only wonder what Charlie Mundt would make of this film. One thing is for sure, though: what’s coming after you press the PLAY button is probably going to hurt, and hurt a lot.

The basic story is about Nick and his wife Kitty, a New Jersey Average-Joe couple who hooked up for shallow reasons and who, over the years of their marriage, have bred contempt for each other due to overfamiliarity. Nick gets turned on by a sultry redhead, Tula, young enough to be his daughter and randy enough to dig guys that look like, well, Tony Soprano. So Nick pursues Tula at the expense of his marriage, even going so far as misguidedly having an adult circumcision so that he can better please the sexpot.

Kitty, naturally, isn’t so keen on any of this, and tries to enlist her quasi-gangster cousin, Bo, to track down Tula and exact revenge.

Ultimately, the film isn’t really about the overwrought affair or its consequences (though the film’s first two acts wallow in those aspects about as much as possible). The final act leaves behind all of the shock and awful in favor of tracing Nick and Kitty’s bittersweet reconciliation.

But we’re still left with those first two acts. Ouch.

Christopher Walken seems to be the only one in this cast whose quirky personal madness steps lightly enough to dance gracefully through Turturro’s screenplay. Everyone else, including Susan Sarandon as Kitty, seems to be trying to recreate moments from Rocky HorrorThe Sopranos, or Angels in America—all while singing along to the radio. It’s an uncomfortable and goofy fit. But two or three years after having seen the film, you will probably remember some of this very fondly. So it’s kind of like a guilt pleasure, sort of in-theme for Valentine’s Day.

There is indeed the nugget of genius buried in this film. (Kate Winslet’s underwater fantasy-sequence as Tula sings with the fishes, for instance, is rather inspired.) At its best, Turturro’s film mimics the better moments of vintage John Waters. Which is to say: just as Hairspray managed to transcend the more cringe-inducing aspects of Waters’ original film, twenty years from now we all might be going ga-ga over a stage revival of Romance and Cigarettes. The stage musical might even get adapted into a really fun movie!

But if it does, the majority of the remake will be more inspired by Walken’s cracked turn as cousin Bo than by James Gandolfini’s rather low-key Ralph Kramden-esque take on Nick Murder.

And, as with Hairspray, someone other than John Turturro will be at the helm. Perhaps someone like Madman Mundt.

Romance and Cigarettes is available to stream at Amazon. You can watch the trailer there… which is a good idea before you decide to pay!