Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Norman Jewison
Moonstruck was a continuation of what a strong journeyman director Norman Jewison was. This time he tackles a screwball romantic comedy that at once hearkens back to his days making movies with Doris Day yet a more modern feminist take on the genre. He works from a screenplay written by John Patrick Shanley, who would write and direct Joe Versus the Volcano and Doubt. This was Shanley’s first screenwriting gig, but he’d been writing for the theater since the early 1980s. Moonstruck is an enchanted picture, much like Joe Versus the Volcano; it’s a subtly heightened world where the moon can appear exaggeratedly large in the sky and have a magical effect on the people of New York City.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a widowed bookkeeper living with her Italian-American family in New York City. She’s been dating Johnny (Danny Aiello) for a while, and he proposes to her. Loretta accepts because it seems like this is her last shot at married life, and there’s really nothing else going on in her world. Johnny has to rush off to Italy to be with his dying mother and asks Loretta to reach out to his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). She learns Ronny lost one of his hands due to an accidental distraction from Johnny years prior and refuses to speak to his brother ever again. Loretta is pulled in by Ronny’s passion and wildness, and they end up in bed together. Meanwhile, Loretta’s father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), is having an affair with another woman while his wife, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), becomes aware of the whole thing. These stories of love, found and lost, culminate in a finale straight out of a classic Italian comedy.
What captivates most about Moonstruck is the tone which is a hard one to describe. There’s a sense of magic, a feeling you associate with New York City. The film is set in the late fall/early winter, so you have that sense of possibility as characters go about their lives. When the large full moon appears around halfway through, there’s a wondrous light cast over everything; characters become suddenly enchanted by its glow, a reminder of younger days when they were filled with life and lust. When I reflected on the picture, I started to think about how much it resembled independent comedies I watched in the late 1990s/early 2000s, particularly the work of Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents). It’s a romantic comedy, yes, but it never feels sappy. However, it doesn’t get too heavy and puts its characters in situations that are more about getting them to think about life rather than experience any real interpersonal peril.
The jewel at the center of the picture is Cher. She plays an entirely unassuming woman and doesn’t lean into glamor until much later in the movie. She’s a regular person, living her life, no longer feeling like the intensity of falling love is something she will ever experience. The script gives her plenty of great comedy moments, reacting off Cage’s Ronny, completely unhinged from reality while feeling like a genuine person. Ronny is prone to being overdramatic and has a deep love of opera, explaining some of these hyperbolic tendencies. You can see how she would fall in love so quickly with a person like him. There’s a beautiful moment when they go to see La Boheme together, and the story begins to affect her in a meaningful way that changes the trajectory of her character.
Surrounding Cher is a fantastic supporting cast. Olympia Dukakis as her mother Rose, gives an outstanding supporting performance and is my personal favorite character in the film. She goes through a night of doubt when she knows her husband is out with his mistress. This leads her to share dinner with a stranger (John Mahoney) who suggests they go back to his place. She refrains, knowing that’s not what she wants but having this experience of being desired when she feels so unwanted does something for her. Vincent Gardenia is excellent as the pompous Cosmo, the patriarch of the family who is drifting away and needs to be reminded what he means to these people. Moonstruck is a picture that reminds us romantic comedies can be good when they are in the hands of skilled filmmakers and not something churned out seasonally following a formula.