Who’d have thought that in the year of “Across the Universe” there would come a musical that was even stranger? Yet here is “Romance & Cigarettes,” a potty-mouthed Brooklyn love story about a man named Nick Murder and his lovers and friends, all of whom sometimes burst into song — not original songs, but familiar recordings by artists as diverse as Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, and Elvis Presley.
This is technically a 2005 picture that got stuck in the wheels of a studio merger, with neither party entirely sure who actually had the rights to it. At last the film’s writer and director, John Turturro, stepped in and said, “The heck with both of you, I’ll distribute it myself.” This seemed to satisfy everyone, and now “Romance & Cigarettes” is finally in theaters, delighting, offending, and bemusing audiences wherever it goes.
It’s set in a blue-collar neighborhood in an undetermined time period, sort of the present but sort of the ’50s, too. Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is a construction worker whose wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), has just discovered his affair with Tula (Kate Winslet). Kitty is faithful and fiery, the sort of wife any man would be glad to have — but Tula is a little younger, a redhead, and a randy British vixen to boot.
Nick and Kitty have three daughters, and it’s a sign of the movie’s preference for fantasy over realism that they are played by Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro, the last two being just three years and one year younger than James Gandolfini (who is 15 years younger than Susan Sarandon). The girls take their mother’s side in the matter of the adultery, of course. The one played by Moore, called Baby, is meanwhile in love with a neighbor kid, Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale), a pompadoured preener who wants to be a rock star if he can only break free from his mother’s control.
Also involved: Nick’s construction-worker buddy Angelo (Steve Buscemi), who offers wise-beyond-his-station advice, and Kitty’s Cousin Bo (Christopher Walken), who wears hats and sings Tom Jones’ “Delilah.”
The film has the feel of a production assembled by a theater troupe, where an established set of actors take on whatever roles they need to for that particular show. The age differences (or lack of them) don’t matter, just as it didn’t matter when Phil Hartman played Dana Carvey’s dad in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. There are theatrical moments like the one where a former lover of Kitty’s is mentioned — and he suddenly appears in the kitchen to talk to Kitty, without everyone freezing, without a magical sound effect, without anything “cinematic” at all. We understand it as a theatrical device, just as we would if we were watching a play.
Now, about the singing. Turturro uses the original recordings on the soundtrack and has his performers sing over them. It would have been more fun to record entirely new versions, sung only by the actors, but I’m guessing that would have done damage to the film’s shoestring production budget.
It doesn’t matter too much, because the musical numbers are stylish and giddy, with enough dancing and general merriment to make you overlook the almost-karaoke nature of the songs. In fact, I found myself smiling with bafflement for most of the film — laughing out loud at Kate Winslet’s delightfully filthy performance, feeling pleasantly puzzled by Turturro’s unusual storytelling choices, and mostly enjoying the unorthodoxy of the whole thing.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; )