Friday, December 7, 2007

Romance and Cigarettes

I just got back from seeing this movie and wow, was I surprised. I honestly didn't expect too much from John Turturro's first film. He's a great actor but that skill doesn't necessarily carry over to the other side of the camera. Originally released in 2005 in a limited fashion, the movie is only now being shown to a wider audience. The tag line: A Savage Musical could not be more appropriate. If Bob Fosse, Joel Coen, Lena Horne and Matthew Barney all met at a singing, dancing, cinematic orgy this is what their illegitimate spawn might look like.

To say that this movie is ambitious would be an understatement. When you feature with Mr. Soprano himself, James Gandolfini belting out torch songs you know that you're talking about a movie outside of the status quo. In fact, within the first ten minutes this movie kills the status quo, buries it and pisses on its grave.

The remarkable thing is that with the exception of some pacing issues in the third act this movie works perfectly. The cast is incredible from top to bottom. Gandolfini plays the hapless lout, Nick Murder and Susan Sarandon his wife and foil, Kitty. Kate Winslet has a hilariously over-the-top turn as Nick's fowl-mouthed mistress, Tula, complete with a ridiculously affected Anglo-accent. Mandy Moore and Mary-Louise Parker (of Weeds fame) are Nick's daughters, Constance and Baby who along with Aida Turturro have formed a terrificly-bad rock band. Steve Buscemi has a great cameo as Angelo, Nick's warped coworker whose love advice is comedy gold. Eddie Izzard has a small but perfect role as Gene Vincent the leader of the church choir and the aforementioned Christopher Walken practically steals the movie as Kitty's neurotic Cousin Bo.

This movie is all over the map: one minute it hits you with a serious scene (Kitty has just discovered poems that prove Nick's infidelity) and the next second characters are bursting out with a song. Normally this sort of haphazard transitioning would be a recipe for disaster but when Nick joins the neighborhood garbage men for a song and dance number in the middle of the street the results are too spontaneous, too absurd to argue with.

For two acts, the movie never lets up; bouncing along, like a kid in a candy store eager to sample the next yummy treat. We're introduced to Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale) - probably the most ridiculous character in the movie - whose infatuation with Baby proves introspective impetus for Kitty and Nick. Having Kitty alternate between bitterly singing love songs to warning Baby of the fleeting impermanence of love is part of this movie's charm. Credit goes to Turturro for the guts to so recklessly mix this fantastical stew of song, dance and emotions.

The casting could not be more perfect. When Christopher Walken (who was born to be in this movie) says without irony, "She was my first love; I traced her name in cow shit", the whole weight of how funny this movie truly is comes crashing down like a wave. More than any movie in recent memory, this movie is fun; when I wasn't laughing my ass off I was grinning like the Cheshire cat.

The only blemish on this otherwise perfect monster of a movie is the final act. Things take a sudden serious turn and the movie just seems to skip a beat. It's not that the seriousness seems out of place when the emotion has been red-lining for half the movie, there is just something jarring about the transition from the silly antics of this truly dysfunctional tribe into sadness at the fate of the patriarch. But to fault the final act is to quibble; this movie is so wonderfully outrageous from beginning to end that you cannot help but love it.

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