Directed by John Turturro, starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard and Christopher Walken.
Van Morrison called it the inarticulate speech of the heart; that moment where words fail to capture the strength of the emotion, and only music can fill the gap. The best prose can sometimes struggle to capture the depth of feeling that a song, however trite, can arouse in the listener.
The impact of music on film has long been understood. Many films have benefited from the insertion of a particularly apposite piece of music, while many pieces of music have become more popular because of their inclusion in a well-known film: for example, the use of 'Sunshine of Your Love' in 'Goodfellas', or the longevity of 'Time of My Life' thanks to the popularity of 'Dirty Dancing'.
In 'Romance & Cigarettes' Nick Murder (Gandolfini) drifts away from his wife, Kitty (Sarandon), and has an affair. The fall-out from the affair is presented as a series of musical interludes, all of which add up to a hugely entertaining whole. The songs act as soliloquies and dramatic monologues, as in musicals, or as background music for certain scenes, as in non-musicals. The difference is that the songs are not original compositions, but popular rock and pop songs melded into the narrative. It is more a case of the soundtrack taking a more prominent role than it is of the film being a genuine musical (the scene with Walken's character Bo singing 'Delilah' merits special commendation for its mixture of drama, humour and music).
Even though the music tends to carry the weight of the emotion and drama, the dialogue is compelling, with a strangely lyrical quality. Indeed, Nick borders on a tragic Shakespearean hero, drawn from the righteous path by pride, beset by tragedy, then gaining redemption through his travails. The actors are well-directed by Turturro, delivering the lines as if following an unseen rhythm and meter; it would be no surprise to see that the script was punctuated by musical notation rather than in the standard manner.
Perhaps, though, this is to read too much into the film. This is not a deep and dramatic examination of the effects of a marriage breakdown, it's a brave attempt by Turturro to break away from the conventions of film-making. And though the influence of the film's producers the Coen brothers is evident (the film displays an exaggeration of reality, enhanced colouration, and a bizarre of characters in occasionally bizarre situations), this is very much Turturro's film.
It is necessary to approach this film in the right frame of mind. If you want to be entertained by great music, good choreography and plenty of laughs you won't be disappointed. Expect 'Citizen Kane' and you will be. Just bear in mind, it's from the same people that brought you 'The Big Lebowski'.
Barry J Whyte