A woman falls in love with her fiancé’s estranged brother. An aging, successful businessman cheats on his wife.
These are the plot and subplot, respectively, of Moonstruck, which turns 25 this year. To someone who’d never seen the film, that description might sound more like the basis for a sordid melodrama with a violent, tragic ending than a warm, eccentric romantic comedy, perfect for Valentine’s Day viewing.
Part of Moonstruck’s achievement is that it manages to be both romantic and fiercely honest about love. The fickleness, the brevity, the irrationality, and the wide streak of selfishness that characterize even the grandest amours are fully acknowledged, and cheerfully mocked, and yet somehow the movie convinces us of love’s transcendence. Plus, it’s one of the funniest films of the ‘80s.
The story centers on a Loretta Castorini (Cher), an Italian-American widow pushing 40. An accountant, she lives in a palatial house in Brooklyn, exquisitely shot by cinematographer David Watkin, with her gloomy father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), an affluent plumber, and her gloomier mother Rose (Olympia Dukasis). Gloomiest of all is her grandfather (Feodor Chalaipin), who moves around in a wake of small dogs—the only time joy registers on his face is when he gets them to howl at the moon.
Loretta agrees to marry her dull, pleasant boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello), who by her own admission she likes but doesn’t love, before he leaves for Italy and the deathbed of his vociferous, energetic mother. While he’s away, Loretta goes to invite his brother Ronnie (Nicolas Cage) to the wedding, and the two fall immediately in love. Meanwhile, Rose struggles with the awareness that Cosmo is cheating on her.
That’s the plot, but it does no justice to the richness of the movie, which works on a surprisingly broad canvas, with minor characters ranging from Loretta’s customers to Cosmo’s, Ronnie’s coworkers, the waiters at the restaurants, or random passersby like the vitriolic old crone with whom Loretta has an odd exchange at the airport. In formal terms, the resolution of the plot is a bit of an anticlimax, really, but while you’re watching the movie it’s comedic bliss, and utterly satisfying.
Indeed, this is one of those rare and precious movies where everything somehow went improbably right. Cher did her best work as an actress in Moonstruck, and Cage probably had his finest hour here, too. But the supporting actors and bit players are sublime without exception—in particular Louis Guss and Julie Bovasso as Loretta’s Aunt and Uncle, and John Mahoney as a coed-loving college professor who happens into dinner with Rose and wistfully discovers the pleasure of a mature woman’s company.
The director, Norman Jewison, did fine work before and after this film, but nowhere else showed this flawless a touch. John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the Oscar-winning, highly quotable script, has never topped it—most of his subsequent work has been brilliant in flashes but badly uneven. But Moonstruck’s dialogue, for all its idiosyncratic poetry, still sounds blunt and natural in the mouths of these actors. The happy irony is that this celebration of love’s glorious imperfection is, in itself, pretty much a perfect movie.