CHAMPAIGN – Introducing the movie "Romance & Cigarettes" on Sunday at Roger Ebert's Film Festival, Time magazine movie critic Richard Corliss said moviemaking is in a "very timid period."
"Do you know how many movies try to do something different? How many moviemakers in a decade even try it? Four?" he asked.
Writer-director John Turturro did with 2005's "Romance & Cigarettes," loosely based on his own family while he was growing up in a small house in the Queens borough of New York.
The movie opens with middle-aged Kitty (Susan Sarandon) finding a poem written by her husband, Nick Murder, played by James Gandolfini, to his young red-haired mistress Tula (Kate Winslet). The rest of the movie centers on the emotional battle between them.
Ebert wrote that the movie "breaks out of Hollywood jail with audacious originality, startling sexuality, heartfelt emotions and an anarchic liberty."
Corliss said it operates at an operatic pitch, with the cast members at times singing and dancing to classic pop songs.
Representing the movie, which got lost after the studio releasing it changed hands and failed to market it, were actress Aida Turturro, the director's cousin and an Emmy-nominated actress from the HBO series "The Sopranos," and choreographer Tricia Brouk, who has worked with Lucinda Childs, Robert Wilson and the Big Dance Theater, among others.
Aida Turturro said her cousin began writing sketches for "Romance & Cigarettes" while playing the title role in "Barton Fink" (1991), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who acted as creative consultants on "Romance & Cigarettes."
She said Turturro's father, like Nick Murder in the movie, died of lung cancer – toward the end of the movie, Murder tells a church organist (Eddie Izzard) that men should be allowed two things in life: to romance and to smoke their brains out.
While John Turturro grew up one of three sons, he gave Nick and Kitty Murder three daughters, with Aida Turturro playing one of them, a niece named Rosebud adopted by the couple.
Turturro put other relatives in his movie as well, among them his mother, Kitty, who was a member of a church choir in the film and who later died without having seen the film.
Aida Turturro said she doesn't know whether her Aunt Kitty could have handled seeing her son's movie.
Other actors did it for little pay. They include Elaine Stritch, an Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actress who appears in only one scene in which she hilariously harangues her adulterous son, Nick Murder, in his hospital bed after he's gorged on black licorice.
Corliss said her performance was the best he's seen from Stritch since her trademark "The Ladies Who Lunch" in "Company." Yet Stritch is almost upstaged by Steve Buscemi, who plays one of Nick's friends. Among other major players in the movie is Christopher Walken, who as Kitty's cousin "does a great Christopher Walken," Corliss quipped.
Aida Turturro said her cousin is humble, hard-working, caring and generous, and made working on the movie fun for everyone.
She said the shoot went fast and that a scene of Winslet singing and dancing while submerged in a lake was shot in one day in a New York bar called Splash, which has a tank in which women "swim around like mermaids."
Corliss noted that "Romance & Cigarettes" breaks expectations of viewers, perhaps most notably as it ends with Sarandon's character alone in her bedroom, after her husband's funeral.
"It's quiet, and it's perfect," Brouk said of the conclusion to the otherwise raucous film.