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Romance and Cigarettes

I suspect, like its titular components, writer-director John Turturro's genre-busting comedy-melodrama-musical will be a matter of personal taste.

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Some may find writer-director John Turturro's genre-busting comedy-melodrama-musical to be giddy fun, structurally clever and emotionally satisfying. Others will be bored, befuddled and barely amused

I can see Turturro's intent to forcibly re-invigorate dusty genres, and his mildly anarchic flamboyance in committing this oddity to celluloid will win some fans. Nonetheless, I rarely connected with this uneven work, finding it forced, shrill, dull and sophomoric.

Starting with his big toe, we meet Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a morally conflicted loutish construction worker suffering in a dysfunctional working-class New York-area family. Weighing on Murder's bearish shoulders are his harping wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon), three deeply annoying "teen-age" daughters (Aida Turturro, Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore) and a nicotine addiction. But he has a beautiful slutty mistress Tula (Kate Winslet) to lift his spirits, causing Murder to hit the street and bellow along with Engelbert Humperdink's cheesy "A Man Without Love," as nearby sanitation workers pirouette in support.

Kitty finds out about Tula, and a standard woman-scorned, man-repents plot unfolds. It's interrupted by pointless diversions (which most often involve shrieking neighbors, and include wasted cameos by the great German actress Barbara Sukowa and comedienne Amy Sedaris) and more song and dance. The conventional premise of musical numbers is that they're transcendent: They lift the viewer to places in the heart and mind unreached by the reality-bound narrative. But while Turturro pretties up the sequences with extra dancers and color, his song choices are painfully literal, and are further dragged down by having the actors lip-sync badly. Intentional artifice, I'm sure, but to what end, I couldn't say.

For me, only two performers broke out of Romance's turgidness: A manic high-haired Christopher Walken shimmies through Elvis Presley's "Trouble" and Tom Jones' "Delilah," and a nearly iridescent Winslet -- all alabaster skin and flame-red hair -- makes the most of the blowsy, profane Tula. Yet there's a caveat even here: Neither performance is that original. Walken does "crazy" for a living, and the deliciously foul-mouthed Tula has a sharper antecedent in Winslet's recent phone-sex scene on HBO's Extras.

Turturro is a respected actor who moves deftly between indie and mainstream, and it's easy to imagine how he rounded up such a hip cast, even for this misguided affair. There's some fun in picking out the arthouse regulars trapped here (hey, everybody trips), and goggling at a work that pairs a crippling flatulence attack with Springsteen's "Red-Headed Woman." In the end, this is likely a film for the select few, as well as for fans of all-star train wrecks and potential cult films.

Starts Fri., Jan. 4. Regent Square

James Gandolfini (center) leads a street-corner serenade.
  • James Gandolfini (center) leads a street-corner serenade.

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