Whatever you want to call it - the tagline brands it a "down-and-dirty musical love story", while its maker prefers "working-class opera" - Romance & Cigarette is the boldest flight of fancy you're likely to see this year. It's inhabited by a champion cast for whom going over the top is impossible, seeing as they're regularly bursting into lip-synched or full-throated versions of classic tunes by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. Also, you can't fault Turturro on aspiration: his third stab at directing, after Mac and Illuminata, brims with clever allusions, cracking (and smutty) dialogue, screwy song-and-dance numbers... and wildly disparate execution that veers between inspiration and insipidness, ultimately extracting a heavy toll.
Setting his film in a blue-collar Queens neighbourhood, Turturro milks the absurd incongruities of his lofty concept - taking the flamboyant artifice of Hollywood musicals and grounding it in mundane reality. The sight and sound of Gandolfini (Tony Soprano!) strolling out his front door and launching into a full-on rendition of 'Lonely Is A Man Without Love', joined by a hoofing squadron of garbage collectors and repairmen, sets the tone for what lies ahead. Later we get a King Lear fantasy sequence with Gandolfini's "Whore Master" strapped to a swing set and the splashy entrance of trash-talking Lancastrian Tula (Winslet), announced in a rocking version of Elvis Presley's 'Trouble', complete with gyrating firemen. And Winslet's just warming up... Infectiously hurling herself into every sequence with raunchy zeal and pinpoint emotion, England's finest actress gives yet another magnificent turn and waltzes off with the movie tucked firmly into her garter-belt. Her co-stars don't get the same show-off perks, although Tula is matched in barminess stakes by Cousin Bo, an unhinged florist crowbarred into the plot as an excuse to get Christopher Walken being loopy.
Some of the choreography is amateurish, some of it slick; a few actors lipsync to the numbers, others belt them out in their own voices. Everything is kept loose and jazzy, with nothing barring a character from popping into a scene when they're being talked about, or speaking in song lyrics.
In fact, the only rule Turturro seems to set for himself is to not have any rules, which does result in baffling plot detours (such as Nick's odd decision to get circumcised) and a whiplash-inducing detour in the final stretch, when the director dumps the song-and-dance and attempts to beef up his wafer-thin plot with tragedy and pathos. It's a lame-duck finale, but with Turturro on such exuberantly ambitious form, it's easy to cut the man some slack.