“Marriage is combat,” Nick Murder tells a young police officer early on in Romance & Cigarettes. This is not the sort of combat from a John Wayne movie, either, with stoic heroes and the flag rising over Iwo Jima. No, marriage is more like guerrilla warfare, full of moral ambiguity and hit-and-run surprise assaults. And Nick should know: he’s just been thrown out of the house by his wife.
As the film opens, Nick (James Gandolfini) is coming home, just a hard-working lug who has built himself a life he isn’t sure he wants. He is confronted by his furious wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), who’s found a love poem Nick’s written to his mistress, Tula (Kate Winslet):
If God’s gift of grace
or the light on your face
could make me forget
your vagina is wet…
To Tula, my Tula, my red flower of love
Nick tries a non-denial denial: “You can’t incriminate a man with just words!”
Kitty responds with one of the film’s many great non sequiturs: “It’s just a hole! What do you think you’re going to find in there…peanuts?”
And then things get strange. Nick tells Kitty to go back to her true love. Immediately, the other man steps into frame and talks to Kitty as Nick looks on. Soon, Nick is in the streets, singing, backed by a chorus of pedestrians and constructiin workers. This is a film of heightened reality, an exuberant musical about an ordinary marriage in trouble. Romance & Cigarettes does not hesitate to Go Big, but it never loses touch with the bloody, beating heart of wounded love.
Like Pennies from Heaven, the film uses well-known popular music to represent its characters’ inner lives. Kitty finds herself singing “Piece of My Heart,” backed by a church choir. Nick sings Bruce Springsteen’s “Red-Headed Woman” for Tula. The effect is both charming and disorienting. We’ve seen many movies about marital discord, but never anything with the bizarre comic sensibilities and unabashedly romantic core of this film.
John Turturro began writing Romance & Cigarettes while filming Barton Fink for the Coen brothers in 1990, refining and polishing his vision for over a decade before finally filming it. That preparation explains the strong visuals and detailed characterization of his film. Turturro has always been a forceful actor, creating strong impressions even from small parts–think of his fine work in The Big Lebowski and Jungle Fever. Given the chance to tell a story so close to his heart, he creates a captivating world where almost every character makes a deep impression.
There’s Angelo (Steve Buscemi), like Nick an iron worker, given to comments like, “I want to fuck a girl with an ass as big as the world!”
One of Nick’s daughters is dating Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale), who has an inflated sense of self. (When told that he’s the world’s best kisser, he replies, “I’m gonna make out with your whole family, Baby!”)
But, in a film full of scene-stealing minor characters, no one can compete with Kitty’s cousin Bo (Christopher Walken). Walken has made an entire career out of stealing movies, but this is possibly his funniest, most bizarre work. Kitty wants Bo to help her find Tula. He agrees, largely because of his own personal history. He once loved a woman so much that he was impotent around her. (“With other chicks, I am Barry White. I go to the meat market!”). When she left him, it drove him mad, as demonstrated in a hilarious rendition of Tom Jones’ “Delilah.”
Tula, the object of Kitty’s anger, is a lingerie saleswoman with strong sexual desires. She projects confidence, the personification of Nick’s lust, but her sensuality is eventually revealed as a mask for her desperation. Winslet has the film’s most difficult role, balancing comedy, eroticism, and hurt in a way that is remarkably truthful.
Nick hits his low point when he is hospitalized. He is dying, cancer-filled. His mother–played with venomous glee by Elaine Stritch–confronts Nick over his affair, finally dismissing him as a third-generation whoremonger. He resolves to repair his marriage.
Tula begs Nick not to end their affair, offering to suck him off immediately, just one last time, hoping that her wanton carnality can keep him around. He responds by shoving her into a river, where she sings miserably underwater, drowning in her own tears. With Tula gone, Kitty and Nick can pick up the pieces of their shattered life together, platonically reconnecting as the cancer kills him.
The film shifts in tone, moving from the zany surrealism of the first half into a more serious and subdued second half. Romance, Turturro suggests, is not really the over-the-top carnival we’ve been taught to believe, but something deeper and more serious. This is–despite all of the one-liners and dance numbers–a corrective to the typical romantic-comedy notion that love is dramatic euphoria, a sweeping high that plasters a permanent smile on your face. Love is a choice, a struggle, combat even.
We move toward our inevitable demise, stumbling over our own feelings, needing the help and support that comes from a loving relationship to help save us from ourselves. “Two things a man should know how to do,” Nick tells his priest, “be romantic and smoke his brains out.” By the film’s end, he has finally learned to do both.