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King and Queens

Romance + Cigarettes , plus Salton Sea
By GERALD PEARY  |  November 28, 2007

VIDEO: A clip from Romance and Cigarettes

There’s James Gandolfini — balding, huffing, shuttling between wife and mistress, obsessed with his mortality, his tubby belly pushing out of his shirt, just as on The Sopranos. But there’s no gangster glamor this time.

In Romance & Cigarettes, which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square, Gandolfini has been dropped by writer/director John Turturro into drab, treeless, white-ethnic Queens. He’s Nick Murder, ironworker, and his in-heat affair with Tula, a toilet-mouthed, cockney-accented lingerie clerk (Kate Winslet), is a madcap attempt to move beyond his prescribed blue-collar life of carting home the bacon for his religious wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), and their three demanding grown daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro).

For this lunchbox bozo, surely there’s more in store than that tiny house with the aluminum fence and the vinyl siding, the box of a backyard hemmed in by high high weeds where Jimmy Hoffa could be buried. And what about that air traffic droning overhead, landing and taking off all hours from La Guardia? You want Tom Wolfe’s anonymous, unglamorous “flyover” people? You got ’em with Nick and the Murder clan.

But Turturro gussies up this depressing tale of underclass claustrophobia, transforming it all into a funky, amusing, improbable musical. There’s dancing in the streets of Queens! When Nick is tossed out by the irate Kitty, this gloomy, cheating guy can’t help but lip-synch Engelbert Humperdinck’s three-Manhattan slurry 1968 ode to Dino, “A Man Without Love.” Trash collectors join in, and a chorus of hardhats: crooning and hoofing by the silent majority! Then Winslet’s bosomy harlot enters the picture by way of a big production number (the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Cuarto de Tula”) and her red-hot mama is rescued from a flaming building by a chorus of horny firemen with unwinding, swelling, squirting hoses. And Sarandon’s wronged spouse turns her Catholic church into a down-home revival meeting, with everyone on the hard benches chanting, clapping, and rocking the boat to Janis Joplin’s torchy recording of “Piece of My Heart.”

There’s an ingratiating levity to the musical numbers, as thespians we admire for their professional rigor have a lark cutting loose, belting out, as enthusiastic amateurs. (Turturro’s stated model is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective.) Other pleasures are acting moments. Gandolfini and Steve Buscemi, as his at-work pal, Angelo (Steve Buscemi), coming off as Ralph Kramden and Norton as they swap smutty Hollywood gossip stories on a high-rise scaffolding above the city. And Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet together for the first time in a movie scene, as the righteous wife marches to the mall to challenge the earthy shopgirl stealing her hubby. Isn’t this a cool reprise of proper spouse Norma Shearer stalking working-girl Joan Crawford in the 1939 classic The Women?

It’s a four-night Massachusetts whirlwind tour for Chris Meltzer & Jeff Springer’s documentary Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, with Springer present: Arlington’s Regent Theatre December 5, the Gloucester Cinema December 6, Cinema Salem December 8, and Beverly’s Cabot Street Cinema December 9. So, where and what the heck is the Salton Sea? It’s a manmade lake 60 miles south of Palm Springs, California, a zesty vacation spot in the 1960s but these days a smelly, soupy, saline cesspool around which poor, unhappy, crazy, boozy citizenry still live, dreaming wearily of a Salton Sea comeback. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s ecological and educational, and for those who want more, there’s a bemused John Waters voiceover.

Related: Review: The Reader, Crossword: 'Don't be shocked', Dead end, More more >
  Topics: Film Culture , Celebrity News, John Turturro, Dennis Potter,  More more >
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