John Turturro's dream project Romance & Cigarettes is a gutter-style jukebox musical with chutzpah to spare and which doesn't know when to quit. It's all here: Singing garbagemen! Catfight in a SoHo lingerie store! Hot-to-trot Kate Winslet as a scorchingly foul-mouthed Irish hussy. Toe-tapping Christopher Walken in full strutting peacock mode, driving an old Detroit beater with a license plate reading "BoDiddley." A wife screaming at her husband, recently discovered cheating, "I trim your nose hair!" Family, infidelity, and a basketful of pop tunes for everyone to sing along to -- Ute Lemper to Connie Francis to Bruce Springsteen to James Brown to Tom Jones to....
Somewhere in all Turturro's chaos is a story about Nick Murder (James Gandolfini), a blue-collar schlub with a stolid wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), and a trio of slightly cracked daughters -- Constance, Baby, and Rosebud (Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro, and Mandy Moore, respectively) -- who function partially as a junior set of Furies but are mostly there to bash out songs in the backyard as part of the three-piece bubblegum garage band they've formed. In short: Nick's a two-timing bastard who's stepping out on the wife with Tula (the previously mentioned Irish hussy), a fact Kitty doesn't take to overly well, and numerous friends and family get dragged into their scuffle and forcing everyone to occasionally bust out in song.
In even putting together this rambunctious car-wreck of a concept musical Turturro has guts, there's no denying. The film is an earthy mélange of low-down trash talk and high-flying concept pieces, resulting in a few moments of serious pop poetry amidst the squalor; Dennis Potter meets Bertolt Brecht. Turturro also seems to have cashed in a mountain of favors to corral this uniformly fantastic cast, with Gandolfini, Sarandon, and Aida Turturro all showing more smoke and fire than they have in a long time. Even the uniformly excellent Steve Buscemi, playing an idiotic cretin co-worker of Nick's, steps it up here with some howlingly perfect delivery, and the fact that Winslet is actually able to make Tula into the paragon of dirty sensuality she's written as is no small feat.
Because of everything that Turturro does right, it's even harder then to report that Romance & Cigarettes is by and large a complete wreck. Transitions between scenes are raggedly patched together. Some of the larger concept numbers, such as an embarrassing dud of a piece where firemen show up to literally hose off a too-hot Tula, fall flatter than (in the overdone parlance of the film) a roadkill pancake. The stunt casting is simply out of control, with Broadway vets like Elaine Stritch and Tonya Pinkins popping up just long enough to steal their few minutes of screen time and then drop out of sight again, and Eddie Izzard leading Kitty's church choir for no apparent reason.
Romance & Cigarettes is the baroque opposite of the year's other musical surprise, Once, a piece that went for minimalist honesty at every juncture, just as this one goes for excess whenever possible. This is the kind of film that's so overripe that a line like, "You must think I'm the cucumber in the gardener's ass," is not even particularly noticeable. The ragged whirligig of pulp karaoke delights, such as it is, comes to an end long before the film closes, though, with a lengthy dirge of a final stretch that seems to be striving for some sort of spiritual and artistic clemency for everything that has preceded it. The maudlin scenes drag on for eternities in the same way that earlier scenes jumped and shouted for your attention; they're both victims of the same kind of directionless excess.
Somebody's gonna get whacked for making me dance.