John Turturro's third and loopiest film, Romance & Cigarettes, is prime film-studies fodder, fitting in best at the tail end of a musicals seminar, along with Dancer in the Dark and other "postmodern" song-and-dancers.
A Coen Brothers production with a cast as unlikely as it is impressive (including Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Steve Buscemi, and Christopher Walken), Romance & Cigarettes is less a story than a state of mind and less a musical than a meditation on how we instinctively set our lives to music, if not other musicals. Unfortunately, it is just shy of convincing on both counts.
Where musicals are concerned with love and not sex, fantasy and not life, Turturro begins his film about 30 years after most musicals end: cue marriage, children, boredom, affairs, death. But the band is playing on as Gandolfini's Queens construction worker takes up (and down and up) with Winslet's outrageously potty-mouthed shopgirl. Sarandon plays the harassed wife, surrounded by her outraged posse of daughters and ex-lovers. The bleakly bizarre, uneven aesthetic, and direction that is fluid but not quite limber, succeed and fail from montage to montage, with the principals doing a sort of karaoke tribute to the likes of Joplin and Springsteen. And with a dragging final third, Turturro subverts the most satisfying part of a musical, proper or postmodern: the big finish.