There’s garden-variety bad. Then there’s dispiriting, enervating, “Why does fate allow this to happen, maybe the Taliban is onto something, how will I find the strength to wake up and face another day” awfulness. The 1996 abomination Theodore Rex belongs in this second category. With a budget of roughly $35 million, the film had the sad distinction of being the single most expensive direct-to-video movie to date. It has the even sadder distinction of being a film Whoopi Goldberg was forced to make after she tried to back out of an oral agreement to star in it, and was sued for $20 million.
Whoopi Goldberg thought the premise for Theodore Rex was so fatally flawed, she was willing to pass up a $5 million payday. That’s $5 million in genuine American currency, not Confederacy dollars or Shrute bucks. Bear in mind that this is a woman who thought it’d be hilarious for Ted Danson to slather on the blackface at a Friar’s Club roast in her honor, then perform a bizarre routine she’d written about her vagina. She didn’t need to be sued into appearing in Fatal Beauty, Jumping Jack Flash, Eddie, Bogus, The Little Rascals,and The Associate. Goldberg also chose to become intimately associated in the public mind first with Comedy Relief shtickmeisters Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, then with the has-been brigade on Hollywood Squares, and finally Barbara Walters’ estrogen-powered assemblage of screeching yentas on The View. So Goldberg knows an awful lot about bad ideas and questionable associations. But even she was prepared to draw the line at acting opposite a flatulent, sneakers-clad dinosaur puppet which looks and acts like a rejected prototype for the little-loved ’90s sitcom Dinosaurs,one bought for pennies on the dollar at a Jim Henson rummage sale.
A part of my soul died watching Theodore Rex. I entered the A.V. Club conference room brimming with hope and optimism. I exited it a hollow, dead-eyed shell of a man. What kind of God would create something like that? How am I supposed to have faith in the essential goodness of humanity when Theodore Rex screams from every frame that the universe is empty, random, and cruel?
Theodore Rex induced a profound existential crisis. I began to lose faith in bad movies. Without bad movies, what’s left? What else am I supposed to believe in? God? Country? The innocence of children? The fundamentals of our economy? The innate decency of common folk? With all due respect, those things are crap. Just kidding, God! Please don’t smite me!
It’s safe to assume that nobody associated with Theodore Rex suffered from delusions of adequacy, let alone greatness. Goldberg’s lack of enthusiasm for the film shines through in every wooden line-reading. She lurches mechanically through the sad surroundings as if she has an invisible gun pointed at her head. She sure picked a curious time to forego mugging and wacky ad-libbing.
Who can blame her? It doesn’t help that the filmmakers sadistically stick her in a skintight leather bodysuit for the entire film. There are certain folks who should never even consider wearing a bodysuit. They include:
1. The world’s fattest man
3. Whoopi Goldberg
…but not necessarily in that order. In a premise plucked straight from the deepest depths of high-concept hell, Theodore Rex casts Goldberg as a tough, no-nonsense cop in a sparsely populated future. Reluctantly partnered with the clumsy, flatulent titular talking dinosaur, she’s assigned to track down the killer of a prominent dinosaur. Forget suspension of disbelief: Theodore never appears to be anything other than a dude in a clumsy, unconvincing dinosaur costume whose mouth movements never begin to match his dialogue.
Theodore Rex made me almost unbearably sad. Was my faith in bad movies misplaced? Should I perhaps have devoted my life to something other than the cinema of the damned? I came home last night a shattered, despondent man. To relax and purge my mind of the taunting image of Theodore’s ghoulish mug, I decided to watch Romance & Cigarettes. Suddenly my faith in the life-affirming magic of bad movies was restored.
John Turturro’s demented semi-musical reminded me why I love bad movies in the first place. It’s a film of stunning audacity and gloriously misplaced conviction, a 106-minute train wreck that dances deliriously in the footsteps of Finian’s Rainbow, Pennies From Heaven, New York, New York, and One From The Heart, working-class musicals seemingly designed not to make anyone a goddamned dime. Together, these films constitute an alternate musical canon populated by struggling dreamers instead of the tuxedo-clad idle rich, and dedicated to the toe-tapping angst of the ever-suffering proletariat.
According to an interview with the prominent online perverts at Nerve, Turturro began dreaming up Romance & Cigarettes while banging away at a typewriter while portraying a make-pretend writer in Barton Fink. With help from executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen, Turturro slowly but surely cobbled together a dream cast and an $11 million budget.
In spite of a cast that more or less features everyone, ever (James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Mandy Moore, Eddie Izzard, Mary Louise-Parker, Christopher Walken, Amy Sedaris, Elaine Stritch, Tony Goldwyn, and Bobby Cannavale) the film lingered on a shelf for years after its 2005 completion. Turturro finally decided to distribute it himself.
When it was finally unleashed upon a perplexed world in late 2007, the film found high-profile evangelists in Roger Ebert, Stephen Holden, and Salon, but died a quick death at the box office—its domestic gross never topped the mid- six figures. And it garnered reviews that can generously be described as mixed, scoring a 53 freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 55 Metacritic score.
The filmmakers couldn’t have been too surprised. It’s no knock on the film to say it has an ingratiatingly homemade “Let’s put on a show!” quality, almost as if Turturro gathered all his actor pals together, put on some 45s, and proceeded to make the world’s most expensive, self-indulgent home movie. Though several choreographers are credited, the dance numbers feel sloppy and spontaneous. Nobody seems overly concerned with hitting their marks or nailing their steps. In Romance’s singing as well as its dancing, enthusiasm and commitment matter a whole lot more than craft or technical ability. In a perverse spirit of democracy, Turturro has opened up the musical to actors who can’t sing or dance, but have music buried deep within their souls.
Romance & Cigarettes immediately establishes its oppressive quirkiosity with a heavy-breathing voiceover from Winslet’s flame-haired tart, who coos, “When a woman bends over, a man sees a jelly donut. Her brain expands; his explooooodes. Dead on arrival in her powdered jelly donut!” Then Turturro’s restless camera zooms out from a tight close-up of the skin on James Gandolfini’s big toe to his slumbering body asleep on a couch.
It’s a measure of Turturro’s unique conception of the musical genre that the auteur—Romance is clearly the work of someone with a strong, albeit insane, personal vision—chose as the anchor for a trippy musical romance the brooding, gargantuan presence of James Gandolfini as a construction worker with a sideline in poetry and infidelity. Here, wife Susan Sarandon inconveniently discovers some prose intended for her husband’s mistress, Kate Winslet:
Wow, it’s like Cassavetes, Ralph Kramden, and Dennis Potter having a chain-fight in a back alley on the MGM lot. Whoremaster Gandolfini is so despondent that he can only express himself—through song!
In Turturro’s film, the Siamese twins of romance and song—which, it should be noted, go together like a horse and carriage, this I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other—permeate every social interaction. They’re the oxygen these characters breathe, as essential to the life of the spirit as water is to the life of the body.
Romance & Cigarettes is swooningly romantic and swooningly idiotic. It’s in love with the sound of its own voice, in love with its soundtrack, in love with its cast, in love with its blue-collar milieu, and above all else, in love with love. But there’s nothing chaste or asexual about its conception of l’amour. It’s proudly filthy. Its lovers express their affection not through hand-holding or furtive glances, but rather through sweaty intercourse. In Cigarettes, it’s all about fucking. Filthy, filthy fucking. Turturro’s film occupies a Henry Miller/Charles Bukowski scatological realm rife with cocks and ejaculate and asses and tits and foreskins and anuses and everything else the Good Lord gave us to feel ashamed about.
Gandolfini’s whoremaster ways threaten to destroy his marriage, but he can’t help himself. Neither can Turturro, who here trots out a few randy fire metaphors off-limits to the makers of Fireproof:
At the last clip illustrates, Turturro has found a way to silence the painfully self-conscious, self-censoring voice inside his head that cries out, “You’re making an ass of yourself! Is that really how you want the world to perceive you?! For God’s sake, man, rein it in a fucking little! Your fucking grandchildren might see this someday! Do you really want them to go home traumatized by grandpa’s dialogue about anal sex, and the lusty depiction of fried-chicken-based afterglow?” He didn’t just silence that voice. He killed it, urinated lustily on its grave, then paid a witch doctor to perform an elaborate voodoo ritual to ensure he’s never reincarnated as someone with a sense of shame and self-consciousness. Even more remarkably, he’s gotten a cast of huge stars, Academy Award winners, and icons to follow his lead. Everyone here is willing to make an exuberant ass of themselves. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether that is ultimately a good or bad thing.
In a cast full of shameless exhibitionists, Christopher Walken earns extra points for audacity as an Elvis-obsessed goof who takes center stage in a typical production number:
He’s matched by greaser Bobby Cannavale as a deeply confused white man who has borrowed James Brown’s hip-swiveling gyrations, as well as his towering, gravity-defying pompadour. It is truly a man’s world. If it wasn’t, a construction worker who looks like James Gandolfini would be forced to choose between his left and right hand instead of between Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet.
For a film obsessed with sex, Romance’s actual sex scenes are stomach-turningly unsexy, and not just because they prominently involve Gandolfini’s sweaty Buddha belly and creepy John Waters-style pencil-thin child-molester mustache, as well as cutesy euphemisms for anal sex:
After goofing around for its first two acts, the film takes a dark turn into grim family melodrama in its last half-hour, as Gandolfini stares down his mortality. In sharp contrast to the joyless, mercenary badness of Theodore Rex, Romance & Cigarettes screams its awfulness from the mountaintops, and dares to dream and fail big. With Romance, Turturro single-handedly restored my faith in failed movies. Turturro’s oddball musicalis the kind of deeply personal, madly overreaching, utterly unforgettable bad that might just be preferable to good.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco