Romance & Cigarettes (15)

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The Independent Culture

"When a woman bends over," says Kate Winslet at the start of Romance & Cigarettes, in a broad Lancashire accent, "a man sees a jelly doughnut." This questionable assertion is followed by an extreme close-up of James Gandolfini's foot, at which point you suspect that you're in for a very rum film indeed.

You're not wrong. John Turturro's bonkers blue-collar musical stars Gandolfini as a construction worker whose marriage to Susan Sarandon implodes when she reads the gynaecological love poem he's written to his brassy girlfriend, played by Winslet. That's about it as far as coherent story goes. Romance & Cigarettes comes across as a random collection of scenes featuring a random assortment of characters: it's anybody's guess why Eddie Izzard turns up, for a matter of seconds, as a church organist. All that holds the surreal shambles together is that everyone in it discusses sex more candidly than a woman on an 0898 line, and, as in a Dennis Potter film, people express themselves by singing and dancing along to the pop songs on the soundtrack.

The project began when John Turturro was playing a screenwriter in Barton Fink (the Coen brothers are the film's executive producers). He felt it would help him get into character if he did some screenwriting on the set, so he typed the title and the opening scene of Romance & Cigarettes, before filing them in a bottom drawer for the next few years. The rest of the film seems to have come about in a similar fashion - with bits and pieces being bolted on as they drifted into Turturro's head.

And it's a stream-of-consciousness method that has yielded some sensational scenes. There's Sarandon hitting someone over the head with a tree. There's Steve Buscemi playing the put-upon chatterbox as no one else can. There's Winslet getting in touch with her inner trollop so eagerly that she'll shock even those viewers who caught her self-parody in Extras. And, most weird and wonderful of all, there's a wholly irrelevant cameo from Christopher Walken, with his anti-gravity hair at its tallest, acting out Tom Jones's "Delilah", and delivering his lines like they've been beamed into his brain from outer space.

Of course, a film with some amazing moments in it isn't the same as an amazing film. And while Romance & Cigarettes might be worth seeing, if only to satisfy your curiosity, much of the shooting, pacing, performing and dialogue is only just competent. It's as if a gang of friends have been playing with a video camera they borrowed for the summer.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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