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'Romance and Cigarettes' is brilliant, but ultimately flawed

Romance and Cigarettes (R)

2 1/2 star out of 4

Languishing on the shelf for two years while making an occasional festival appearance, writer/director John Turturro's audacious musical "Romance and Cigarettes" is what industry types sometimes refer to as a "brilliant failure."

The first thing you should know about it going in is that it is one of the most frank, sexually charged movies you'll ever see. It's not porn, but it's real close. Imagine the spunk of John Waters' original "Hairspray" mixed with the crass vulgarity of his "A Dirty Shame" by way of "West Side Story." From one scene to the next, Turturro alternates between depraved schoolboy shock and heartfelt schoolgirl yearning. It's a tough balancing act, and he pulls it off about half the time.

James Gandolfini stars as Nick, a steel-worker whose wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) finds a lust letter he composed for his mistress Tula (Kate Winslet). When Kitty confronts Nick, he doesn't quite deny the affair and also doesn't indicate he'll stop seeing Tula. Kitty tosses him out.

Next, she sets about trying to break up the romance involving her daughter Baby (Mandy Moore) and would-be pop idol Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale). For the most part, that's the extent of the plot.

The rest of the story is propelled not by original compositions, but rather the cast singing over top of an eclectic mix of old pop songs. Gandolfini and a group of trash men belt out Engelbert Humperdinck's "A Man Without Love." Christopher Walken manhandles the old Tom Jones song "Delilah." Even with gospel choir support, Sarandon barely gets by while warbling Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart."

Not surprisingly, the best performance comes from Moore, who bravely rips Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" to shreds. Turturro's choice of music here is impeccable.

As far as the acting is concerned ... Gandolfini turns in little more than a variation on his Tony Soprano character. Same goes for his "Sopranos" sister Aida Turturro, who here plays his adopted daughter. Winslet is the one who walks away with the movie. With her tart-red hair, assorted Frederick's of Hollywood-style outfits, street-walker vocabulary and stripper-inspired dance moves, Winslet offers further evidence of why she is one of the most acclaimed actresses in the world.

Funny in some moments, hilarious in others and spotty everywhere else, "Romance and Cigarettes" deserves credit for spitting in the face of typical musical convention and often saying what many of us think but would never dare speak aloud.

It takes far more chances than it should, but taking chances is what maverick filmmaking is all about. Hats off to Turturro for casting such fate to the wind. (United Artists)

Opens exclusively at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta. Call 678-495-1424 or visit www.landmarktheatres.com.