Sunday, July 30, 2006

Romance and Cigarettes (2005)

Romance and CigarettesDennis Potter has a lot to answer for! His The Singing Detective featured an odd concoction of drama and lip-synced song and dance, that bordered on the surreal and was regarded, at the time, as ground-breaking. Romance and Cigarettes, released on DVD last week, is more of the same, but this time with the Coen brothers producing, and a lot of big name Hollywood stars chipping in.

In truth, this film isn't my kind of film. I suspect it's aimed at the crowd who loved Ferris Bueller's Day Out or The Big Lebowski - two films that have huge cult followings, but which left me stone cold wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. While I can admire the sentiment behind Romance and Cigarettes, and certainly the acting, every time you think you've got a hook on some sort of reality to it, it goes off in a ridiculously quirky direction that just had me looking at my watch, wondering how long there was left. Fortunately the 115 minutes running time advertised on the sleeve turns out to be more like 95 minutes in reality - I guess whoever produced the sleeve information just thought, like me, that it FELT much longer than it is.

The stand-out, for British viewers, is Kate Winslet, who is barely recognisable and plays strongly against type, as the foul-mouthed seductress of the main character, played by James Gandolfini of The Sopranos fame. The only problem is that some of the surprise of this performance has been taken away because it comes across as something of a reprise of her performance in Ricky Gervaise's TV series Extras. Gandolfini plays the bumbling, idiotic man in the middle of the love triangle. It's a good performance but, to be honest, it's just his Sopranos character all over again, but this time without the violence - torn between two women: his long suffering wife, and the afore-mentioned Winslet. His dysfunctional family provide the excuse for all sorts of oddities and musical numbers, and while the film has a serious message at its core about love and betrayal, that gets lost in the desire to be 'quirky' or 'surreal', which too often just seems contrived. Writer/director John Turturro comes close to creating a film that could have been written by his mentors and executive producers, The Coen Brothers, but somehow doesn't quite pull it off.

There are some great cameo performances from Christopher Walken (playing a character we've seen him play before), Steve Buscemi, Eddie Izzard, Susan Sarandon, Elaine Stritch and a strong supporting cast, but ultimately the film is just too self-aware to lead anywhere. The introduction of 'karaoke' song and dance numbers is signalled well before it should be, so that the plot seems to have been contrived around the songs, rather than the other way round - which is what made things work for Dennis Potter.

For most I suspect this will prove to be an interesting curiosity, and it's good to see a film-maker taking brave risks, but ultimately this is one risk that hasn't really paid off. I can see it being a huge cult hit with a certain segment of the American market, but not much else.

The quality of the transfer to DVD is excellent, but this is a 'vanilla' release, with absolutely nothing in the way of extra's. In this day and age that's pretty pathetic. All-in-all I'd say give it a miss unless you're a big Coen Brothers fan!

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