Now is a pretty good time to catch American moviemakers jumping off the deep end. Todd Haynes's inscrutable not-Bob-Dylan Bob Dylan deconstruction "I'm Not There" is at an art-plex somewhere. The MFA is playing an excellent documentary about the avant-garde performance artist Jack Smith. And if you run you might be able to catch Richard Kelly's post-apocalyptic distress signal, "Southland Tales," before it vanishes. Otherwise, there's "Romance & Cigarettes," John Turturro's gonzo musical, which opens today.
The movie is actually more than some musical. It feels intensely personal, but Turturro, directing with abandon, uses volume and pulpy craziness to disarm you. How does anybody resist a movie that asks you to believe Elaine Stritch gave birth to James Gandolfini, or that Barbara Sukowa sings in a gospel choir? The songs are hand-me-down forgotten treasures and classics (James Brown's "Hot Pants," Vikki Carr's "It Must Be Him") that play while the actors sing over them. The result is a karaoke fantasia piled high with the sort of gleeful digressions possible only if you've smoked Fellini's ashes.
The film is about the lovelorn in Queens, and if the singing were in a higher key, Turturro really could have called it "The Sopranos." Gandolfini plays Nick Murder, a construction worker with Susan Sarandon for a wife and Kate Winslet for a lusty British mistress. The film revolves around what happens after Kitty the homemaker finds out about Tula the lingerie sales clerk: Nick mopes in and out of the doghouse. Mary-Louise Parker and Mandy Moore are the Murders' daughters; Aida Turturro - Turturro's cousin, Gandolfini's former TV sister - is their glorified sibling. The three of them hang out in the backyard rehearsing for a garage band with no apparent garage. Sometimes Bobby Cannavale drops by, acts from his crotch, and whisks Moore away to his house down the street. Sukowa plays his mother, a psychic with a busted heart. And Steve Buscemi has a few funny scenes as Nick's randy co-worker.
The movie is just a series of primal screams - one happens after Nick gets circumcised for Tula while singing Cyndi Lauper's rendition of "Prisoner of Love." Regardless, Turturro gives the musical numbers an internal logic through editing and choreography. It all only seems like a mess. "Piece of My Heart" is an occasion for huge emotional release and hilarious physical comedy. While Sarandon looks like she might blow a gasket singing in this church-bound number - Eddie Izzard, pretending to play the organ, looks concerned - Turturro cuts to Sukowa moaning beside an equally ecstatic woman in a dashiki. This is such a stupidly sublime moment I swear Turturro stole the whole thing from "The Muppet Show."
Eventually, Christopher Walken arrives, as Sarandon's Elvisaholic cousin with a sad, melodramatic tale of his own. Cue Tom Jones's "Delilah" and watch the master of kitsch showmanship go to town on a little neighborhood street and in a cramped diner. As he did in "Hairspray," Walken only feigns amateurishness. The material is serious-silly enough to obviate the need for winking. That's the surreal joy of this movie. It transcends preposterousness with tons of ardor.
Winslet is especially good at this. Her trashy fantasy girl is an Alitalia flight away from "8 1/2," but Winslet laces her fleshy sexiness with some earthy, despairing oomph. Watching her shimmy and jiggle to a Connie Francis song with two underdressed, mock-undertalented extras is funny and touching. The character is vulnerable, and the actress is too. (Who needs dancing with the stars, when you've got this?)
For some reason Turturro gives up on the movie's arch blissfulness, and the last 20 or so minutes feel hungover with emotional heaviness, as if the director had to apologize for this crude and lascivious entertainment. Turturro finished "Romance & Cigarettes" almost three years ago, and maybe he felt a preemptive need to atone for a film that would seem destined never to find a distributor. But the movie feels otherwise true to its maker. I pray the nightmare of getting it released doesn't scare him from being so fearlessly idiosyncratic again. The movies need more of this kind of crazy.