There are many in my generation who don’t know this, but Cher once won an Oscar in the late ‘80s. In all likelihood, either you are now shaking your head as you curse the obviousness of my statement; slowly nodding at this interesting little tidbit of information; or you’re a millennial asking ‘Who the hell is Cher?!’ For those of you who don’t know, I will let the Wikipedia do the groundwork in that department, and instead offer up another little sliver of trivia about 1987’s Moonstruck, for which she received her Oscar.
Like a number of films set in New York, a portion of the film was actually shot in Toronto, which is also home to Moonstruck’s director Norman Jewison. In fact, a number of weeks ago I reviewed The Hurricane, another film by Jewison that was partly shot in the Toronto area. Interestingly, Jewison has before proclaimed The Hurricane to be his best work, and while I do have a great deal of love and admiration for The Hurricane and its direction, Moonstruck certainly makes a strong case for that number spot in Jewison’s catalogue.
The film’s main plot swiftly introduces us to Loretta Castorini, a thirty-seven year-old Italian-American bookkeeper living with her parents and grandfather in New York’s Brooklyn Heights. Loretta’s boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello) awkwardly proposes to her, but after having lost her previous husband in an accident a few years previous, Loretta’s Italian superstition has her believing she is the bearer of bad luck, and as such wants a more traditional wedding to avoid catastrophe. In light of this, Johnny, who must leave for Sicily to be with his dying mother, asks Loretta to contact his estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) and invite him to the wedding, which eventually leads to romantic complications for Loretta.
Allow me to open by saying that the film did not initially grip me in its earliest scenes. While the well-delivered humour is certainly present from the beginning, I felt bogged down by occasionally overblown dialogue and cultural jargon. Thankfully my girlfriend, who is of Italian descent on both sides and adores Moonstruck, quickly filled me in, from there allowing me to fully appreciate the film’s seamless cohesion of romance, comedy, and drama.
At the foundation of this is Moonstruck’s screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, which is snappy, witty, and all-round well-constructed. What is most impressive, however, is the ways in which the writing, direction and acting all compliment and play off one another in the best ways possible. This can be exemplified from even a moment as brief as when Loretta’s mother Rose is awoken to inform her of the engagement, where she immediately asks “Who’s dead?” Dukakis’s humorously deadpan delivery, the timing of its writing (this is Rose’s introductory scene), and Jewison’s subtle, unforced direction open up a sequence of rapid-fire comedy that keeps the laughs going until Dukakis is once again off-screen (part of the reason why she, too, deservedly won an Oscar for her performance).
While Cher is unquestionably the strongest performer here, a great deal of credit must also be given to Vincent Gardenia, who does an outstanding job of bringing Loretta’s father Cosmo to life in animated fashion.
Despite my heaping praise on the cast, it must be said that Nicholas Cage’s performance proves one thing: that he was just as erratic and inconsistent in the eighties as he is today. That is not to say that he delivers an overall bad performance, or that I am unaware of the immense talent he possesses in the right role. Instead, as Ronny, I sometimes felt that he was making odd decisions and taking needless risks in his portrayal, only to eventually get a grasp on his character when Ronny later meets Loretta at the opera. By gaining this grasp on his character, Cage thankfully tones down Ronny’s pent-up aggression, opting instead for a more grounded loved-sick approach, which works well, especially in the film’s outstanding closing sequence.
This sequence is further testament to Shanley’s sharp writing, matched again by the acting and directing, and to me it is the gold standard on how to close a romantic comedy. It has it all, from the raw human drama, to featuring some of the funniest moments of the entire film, as well as some of the most touching. Potentially the greatest triumph of the closing, however, is the way in which each plot thread is impeccably wrapped up in the most satisfactory manner. In less capable hands, it could have been an exercise in calamity, but instead leaves a pleasant, upbeat sense of wholesomeness that lingers long after it fades to black.
While I felt like somewhat of an outsider in its opening scenes, Moonstruck wastes little time in coming together, and by the end I felt embraced by the open arms of its wonderful characters, uplifting story, and focussed themes. Moonstruck is one of those gleaming examples of when each aspect of a production gels to produce a work whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. If you are looking for a funny, feel-good romantic comedy with heart to spare, then look no further than what I think is Norman Jewison’s most accomplished work.