Understanding that John Turturro intended his third writing-directing project, Romance & Cigarettes, as a "working-class opera," helps make sense of many things that otherwise seem senseless: the film's heightened, stagy dialogue, its massive melodrama, its abrupt final-act dive into death-induced somberness, and above all, the way the characters keep bursting into song. But understanding it doesn't make it easier to take. Virtually everything about the film is over-the-top and wildly fakey, from Kate Winslet's husky opening line about how "when a woman bends over, a man sees a jelly doughnut" to the freaky '80s David Lynch characters who lack a freaky David Lynch setting to anchor them.
James Gandolfini stars as a New York ironworker who's been cheating on his tense wife Susan Sarandon with energetic, foul-mouthed tart Winslet; when Sarandon finds evidence of his infidelity, she delivers a typically odd, artificial line: "I hate you! With all the hate that you can hate with!" Then they fight via song lyrics and rhyming couplets, like the world's oldest, whitest battle-rappers, before he mopes out back to sing Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love." Later, he finds solace in the non sequiturial guy-talk of co-worker Steve Buscemi ("I'd like to fuck a woman with a backside as big as the world!"), while Sarandon approaches her cousin Christopher Walken, who regales her with his own relationship problems in the form of Tom Jones' "Delilah." Periodically, the whole enterprise lurches into dark fantasy sequences, such as the one in which Gandolfini and his family, in full passion-play costume, briefly enact a scene out of Samson & Delilah. (It's like a dream, but whose? Apparently just Turturro's.)
All this might have the crazed charm of Pennies From Heaven—at least it's another chance to see Walken sing and dance—except that unlike Pennies, Romance doesn't commit to its own loopy musicality. Sometimes the actors lip-sync, but more often, they're singing along with the original vocal tracks, trying to out-belt Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, like a cadre of enthusiastic shower singers joining in with the radio. The resulting cacophony is generally harsh and sloppy, and the film follows suit, with its tonal lurches, energy-over-craft performances, and overcrowded, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues-style story. The cast (which also includes Mary-Louise Parker, Amy Sedaris, Eddie Izzard, Bobby Cannavale, and Mandy Moore) makes the whole thing look like an unscripted, overcaffeinated karaoke party, but while it looks like it was great fun to film, it's regrettably little fun to watch.