Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) is a harrassed father of three daughters whose relationship with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) is in jeopardy when he returns home from work one day to find she has discovered an explicit love poem he has written - but not to her. Nick tries to cover for himself, but Kitty is having none of it and a shouting match erupts with him yelling at her that she should have stayed with her first love, a remark that the daughters are left wondering about. Filled with angst, Nick stumbles out into the street, singing Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man without Love" while various people around him, including the refuse collectors and passersby, join in, creating a ode to Nick's conflicted feelings...
Dennis Potter has a lot to answer for, as John Turturro, working from his own script, takes the template of a basic drama adorned with the cast singing or miming along to old songs on the soundtrack and fashions his own blue collar romance out of it. Appearing to be set in the present day, it dips into songs from the past century for its musical elements, and sets out its stall early on with that scene described above. Frustratingly, few of the songs are played in their entirety - not that I was particularly enamoured of Gandolfini's singing, but some numbers deserved to go on a little longer to give the songs room to breathe.
There is another woman in Nick's life, and she is Tula, played by Kate Winslet with a foul mouth and a thick Northern English accent for reasons best known to herself. Crowned with bright red tresses, she seems more like an actress trying to break out of her more accustomed performances, and pulls it off, whether dancing and singing or indulging in a lot of plain speaking. The story these characters inhabit is pretty basic - man has affair, splits from his wife, tragedy brings them back together - but the presentation of that story is so bizarre for the most part that it's difficult to get a handle on. Indeed, it's tempting to write the whole thing off as a complete mess, but there's something about a noble folly like this that brings its own enjoyment, and with these names in the cast it demands attention.
Even if that attention is more of the ogling a terrible mistake variety than the daring work of art that presumably was intended. In that cast you can witness Sarandon competing in a musical catfight with Winslet after Kitty tracks Tula down to her place of work, Steve Buscemi as Nick's workmate offering unlikely sexual fantasies, and Christopher Walken as Cousin Bo not only singing along with Tom Jones' "Delilah", but acting out the lyrics through the medium of dance (it's a real pity he wasn't able to show off his Terpsichorean skills in more, earlier films). On the way, Nick undergoes circumcision which he thinks will please Tula sexually (she is quite flattered), and finds that after all this, he prefers the woman he married - but she won't have him back. It's only as the story moves into its final act that the tone mellows to a more sorrowful one and the over the top aspects that have previously held sway are let go, with unexpectedly touching effect. Romance & Cigarettes may well be ridiculous, somewhere between absolutely appalling and oddly fascinating, but that just makes it all the more worthwhile - it's not afraid to take chances, and that's to be applauded.