BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of their Great Romantic Movies countdown.
It took a Canadian filmmaker to make Moonstruck (1987), the quintessential Italian-American romantic comedy from a screenplay written by an Irish-American playwright, but then isn’t that what the American experience is all about? For what is the United States, but the great melting pot? Norman Jewison’s film is a celebration of love, life and food. John Patrick Shanley’s script is full of romantic yearnings for, among many things, the opera and, of course, the moon. Above all else, the film places an emphasis on the importance of family. Moonstruck was the My Big Fat Geek Wedding (2002) of its day only infinitely better and about an Italian family as opposed to a Greek one. Watching Jewison’s film again, you realize just how much Nia Vardalos’ romantic comedy is heavily indebted to it. If Moonstruck is La Boheme than Greek Wedding is Tony and Tina’s Wedding.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). They act like an old married couple and they haven’t even tied the knot yet! And therein lies the problem – their relationship lacks passion. He is called away suddenly to Italy to see his mother on her deathbed and asks Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding. Ronny works in a bakery and is bitter over having lost his hand in a freak accident, blaming Johnny for what happened. In a classic case of opposites attracting, Loretta and Ronny find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other.
At the time, Nicolas Cage was considered an odd casting choice because of his reputation as an eccentric character actor. The way he gestures and enunciates certain words is off-kilter in such a way that it gives his scenes a wonderfully unpredictable vibe. He makes unusual choices and surprisingly they all work. Cage delivers a very physical, Brando-esque performance only filtered through his very distinctive style of acting as evident in the scene where Ronny and Loretta meet for the first time. Cage is fascinating to watch for the unusual choices he makes. Ronny paces around the room, starting his rant quietly before gradually building in intensity, punctuating his impassioned speech with words like, “huh” and “sweetie.” Jewison orchestrates the actor beautifully through editing so that the scene has an absolutely captivating rhythm as we gain insight into Ronny’s character. Cage conveys an impressive range of emotions as Ronny goes from pride to rage to sadness.
He plays well off of Cher and they have the kind of chemistry that is so important for this kind of film. His fiery, Method approach works well in contrast to Cher’s more controlled style and their scenes together crackle with the intensity of two actors with very different approaches bouncing off each other. Ronny is a wounded animal, “a wolf without a foot,” as Loretta puts it, and she is “a bride without a head,” as he tells her, but over the course of the film she transforms him into a civilized human being. She brings out the romantic who likes to dress up and go to the opera. Cher does a wonderful job of immersing herself in the character of Loretta, a strong-willed, smart woman who thinks she has it all figured out until she meets Ronny. On the surface, Loretta may seem like a cynic, but she has taken what she feels is a more realistic approach towards love because of the death of her previous husband. She has chosen to marry Johnny not because she loves him, but because he’s a safe bet. Her heart has fallen asleep only to be awakened by Ronny. Cher won a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance as a widow who, against her better judgement, falls in love again. Watching her in this film reminds one how natural an actress she is and what a crime it is that she doesn’t act more often.
Cage and Cher are well supported by a fantastic cast of colorful character actors. Vincent Gardenia plays Loretta’s cheap father Cosmo who has a lover on the side and Olympia Dukakis is Rose, her wise mother full of world-weary pearls of wisdom, like when she tells her daughter about men: “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” There’s an air of sadness to her character as Rose seems to have resigned herself to a life where every day is the same. Then there’s Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. as Loretta’s grandfather who can be seen in several scenes walking his small fleet of mangy dogs and seems to be used as merely window-dressing until Jewison gives him a pivotal moment towards the end of the film.
The film’s secret weapon is Danny Aiello as mama’s boy Johnny. From hysterical crying to the way he interacts with Cher’s Loretta, his portrayal of Johnny is a master class in comedic acting. Johnny thinks he knows something about men and women (“A man who can’t control his woman is funny.”), but is quickly put in his place by Loretta. Aiello does wonders with throwaway bits of dialogue like, “My scalp is not getting enough blood sometimes,” as Johnny tells Loretta over dinner while vigorously rubbing his hair. He doesn’t mug per se, but rather plays it straight in a way that makes his character look ridiculous via tiny gestures or through a specific facial expression. Compared to someone like Cage, you know Aiello has no chance with Cher, but the actor plays it like Johnny believes they are going to get married all the way through the film.
There are superb recurring gags, like John Mahoney’s sad university professor who keeps striking out with younger women that throw wine in his face midway through dinner before storming out of the restaurant. While his character is a bit of a Lech, Mahoney’s expressive eyes convey a sadness that makes you feel somewhat sympathetic for him. There’s a nice scene between his character and Rose where they end up having dinner together at the restaurant after he’s publicly embarrassed yet again by his latest young lady friend (Canadian actress Cynthia Dale in a small role). It’s a lovely scene between two lonely people as they talk honestly about their lives and she asks him, “Why do men chase women?” He has no good answer and she tells him, “I think it’s because they fear death.” It kickstarts a fascinating conversation that allows us to understand these two people. Every time I watch Moonstruck I imagine an offshoot film that follows Rose and the professor as they run off together or perhaps have a brief affair.
The use of location is excellent. For example, the opening shot is of Lincoln Center (which features prominently later on) in New York City so we know exactly where we are. Most of the film is set in Brooklyn and Jewison conveys an almost tactile feel for the borough. You want to be there and know these people. You also get a real sense of community. The warm, inviting lighting of the Italian restaurant where Johnny proposes to Loretta and where her mother has dinner with Mahoney’s professor has a wonderful, intimate atmosphere made up of warm reds and contrasting greens that puts you right there. There is another scene where Loretta looks out the window at the full moon in the night sky and the lighting is perfect with just the right music that results in such a touching, poignant moment. No words are spoken because none are needed with such visuals.
Moonstruck received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “I was struck by how subtle and gentle it is, despite all the noise and emotion. How it loves its characters, and refuses to limit their personalities to a few comic traits.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “They’re an irresistibly offbeat couple – Cage playing on the edge, where he likes it; Cher creating a fairy tale realist, captivating yet cautious. He looks like the bastard son of Mama Celeste and Wile E. Coyote, and she, as the camera romances her Mediterranean features, is Mona Lisa in heavy mascara.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson wrote, “They come from Shanley’s gorgeous dialogue: the tart, real talk of people who’ve lived together their lives long, filtered through a poet’s sensibility.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “Cher is the nominal star of what turns out to be a terrific ensemble piece about a bunch of tough-as-nails Italian characters living in New York.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Moonstruck clearly means to celebrate all things Italian. However, it creates the false but persistent impression that most of the people who made it have never been closer to Italy than, perhaps, Iowa.”
As much as the 1980s was typified by Wall Street’s (1987) Gordon Gekko and his “Greed is good” mantra, Moonstruck is about blue-collar people. It pays tribute to folks that represent the glue of society, showing us bookkeepers, bread makers, liquor store owners, plumbers and so on plying their trade. The characters in this film may lead workaday jobs, but their personal lives are anything but average. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Moonstruck does heighten ethnic stereotypes for comedic effect, but the latter film does so sincerely and with class. Moonstruck perpetuates a lot of Italian stereotypes, but not in a grating way, playfully making fun of some of them while celebrating others with affection. Far from being a bundle of ethnic clichés, it is a celebration of the Italian-American experience. The crucial difference between the two films is tone. Where Greek Wedding is all cuddly, feel good sitcom, Moonstruck has some bite to it, an edge as represented by Cage’s passionate performance. This film is full of fantastic acting and much pleasure comes from watching a very talented cast speak brilliantly written dialogue. Best of all it has a wonderful sense of romantic naivete, a cinematic love letter to New York City.