- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
n line with the conceit that it's something like an opera, the original cut of "Moonstruck" opened with music from "La Boheme." The result was, we are told, deadly. Test screening audiences thought they were watching a heavy-duty drama and refused to laugh. After Puccini was replaced with Dean Martin's cheerful 1953 hit, "That's Amore," says director Norman Jewison, the audience realized they were seeing a comedy and the result was an Oscar-winning hit. Even so, some were never really in on the joke.
The characters in "Moonstruck" think they're living a grand tragedy, but they're stuck in a light comedy and motivated by farcical delusions and romantic dreams. It seemed old fashioned even on its release, but the humor of writer John Patrick Shanley was very much of the 1980s, when irony became king. My mother, for one, never understood why it was supposed to be funny. These people were suffering!
Set in predominantly Italian-American Brooklyn Heights, New York, "Moonstruck" opens with a halfhearted proposal of marriage. Dull and far from handsome, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) has to be reminded to put on a proper formal display while popping the question to the lovely, if prematurely gray and dour, Loretta Castorini (Cher). Instead of making passionate love to his woman, Johnny hops on a plane to Palermo and his mother's deathbed.
Loretta's loving mom (Olympia Dukakis) and her affluent plumber dad (Vincent Gardenia) are not fans of Johnny, and Loretta really isn't that crazy about him herself, but the elder Castorini's have their own problems. They needn't worry, because Johnny has asked Loretta to personally invite his badly estranged brother to the wedding, and the younger Cammareri brother is everything phlegmatic Johnny is not. He is, in fact, a complete lunatic for love. Given that Ronny Cammareri is Nicolas Cage, his fine madness is less of a surprise today than it was 24 years ago.
Dismissed as amusing fluff by many critics then and now, "Moonstruck" was an enormous movie and represented something close to a personal best for a lot of its collaborators. Cher's delivery of the line, "Snap out of it!," after Ronny/Nicolas Cage declares his love, went into the annals of film comedy and she won an Oscar with a sensitive but stylized performance. Mostly unknown stage actress Olympia Dukakis became a name overnight and was nominated, and then won, Best Supporting Actress for playing the depressed but mighty Rose Castorini. (Her cousin, Michael Dukakis, also got an important nomination the next year; his luck wasn't so good.)
"Moonstruck" was also the final major film performance for character actor Vincent Gardenia, nominated for an Oscar as the philandering, gently pompous Cosmo Castorini. Laugh for laugh, the funniest actor in the film, he easily matched his Academy Award competition: Albert Brooks' semi-legendary turn in "Broadcast News" and Sean Connery's blustery winning role in "The Untouchables."
The movie was definitely a cinema personal best for off-Broadway playwright John Patrick Shanley. He won a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award and might have been the last writer of a widely released American romantic comedy not named Woody Allen who received, and deserved, serious attention. (Becoming a director, Shanley flopped with aplomb in his ambitious 1990 follow-up, "Joe Versus the Volcano." His next film was 2008's Oscar-nominated "Doubt.)
Not nominated at all was a certain Mr. Cage. He was nearly 20 years younger than his leading lady, and the same age then as Michael Cera is today, but in a film where few of the actors were playing their actual age, he was clearly the man for the role. The speech where we learn just why Ronnie hasn't spoken to his older brother, and how that's related to his wooden hand, is the kind of insanity that could ruin the best performers. Cage's brilliance at, as the saying goes, "losing his shit," made him the perfect delivery system for writer Shanley's hyper-emotional humor. Cher, who is Armenian-American, says she had to fight the studios to hire Cage, nee Nicolas Coppola, for one of his most Italian roles; her instincts could not have been more correct.
For all the emphasis on its leads, "Moonstruck" is a brilliantly cast ensemble piece and two smaller supporting roles deserve a special mention. Working on the recommendation of the aforementioned Mr. Connery, director Norman Jewison was absolutely correct to cast Russian-born octogenarian Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. ("The Name of the Rose") as the Castorini family's often silent patriarch, dog walker, and occasional Greek chorus. An even more inspired choice was John Mahoney ("Frasier"), still a newcomer to film acting at 47. As an affably dysfunctional college professor and serial dater of attractive students, his wonderful chemistry with Olympia Dukakis was probably crucial in her Academy Award win.
At the very least, Jewison deserves a huge amount of credit for assembling the cast and obtaining such uniformly terrific performances. A first-rate but often prosaic filmmaker, Jewison was a slight mismatch for highly theatrical material. Stylistically at his best in his two famous 1960's quasi-realist thrillers, "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Thomas Crown Affair," he had more difficulty on two engaging but awkward 1970s musicals, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Fiddler on the Roof." "Moonstruck" falls somewhere in between. It's operatic but, after all, not actually an opera. Though it suffers from the slightly washed-out 1980s look caused by the inferior film stocks of the time, the very great British cinematographer, David Watkin ("Help," "The Knack and How to Get It") keeps things from getting too visually stodgy.
They generally stink of too much niceness today, but romantic comedies were already in big trouble in the late 1980s. "Moonstruck" was a brilliant throwback to classically constructed comedies but also daring in its dark humor and bracing in its message: Life is hard and love only makes life messier, but embrace it anyhow because you're going to die. Why do studios think romantic comedies have to be nothing but nice?
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
As I mentioned above, the 80s was not the greatest time for film stocks, but this transfer looks about as good as you can expect. However, at least on my Samsung player, getting to the special features involved a certain amount of non-intuitive creative thinking, but the special features from the 2006 DVD remain intact. There's a worthwhile commentary featuring Cher, Norman Jewison, and John Patrick Shanley, and three documentaries. "Moonstruck at the Heart of an Italian Family" is a retrospective look at the film with plenty of interesting cast and crew interviews, though some chats with real-life Italian-American couples feel unnecessary. "Music of Moonstruck" features composer Dick Hyman talking about the musical choices that were made on the film. "Pastas to Pastries: The Fine Art of Italian Food" has Mark DeCarlo of "Taste in America" giving us a quick tour of restaurants in Little Italy – Manhattan, not Brooklyn Heights – as well as a bit of cooking show fun with Chef Elvin Molina. It all looks delicious, but it's a slightly odd choice as "Moonstruck" isn't all that much about food, though there is that delicious looking pre-coital steak Loretta cooks for Ronny.