Tuesday, April 8, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Moonstruck (1987)
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis
Moonstruck is a film about which I feel very defensive and protective, because in my experience people tend to hear the name Cher and dismiss this film sight unseen. But Cher is great here (and completely deserving of the Oscar that she won) and the film itself is great (and would have been a fine Best Picture choice had it won). This is a romantic comedy centering on some of the least romantic people you’ll ever see onscreen, living in a fantasy version of New York. The characters in this film aren’t necessarily like anyone that you know, but they’re like people you’d want to know because they’re all so amusing.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a superstitious, widowed book-keeper who has just become engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Johnny is going to Sicily to be with his dying mother and, while he’s gone, asks Loretta to find his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and convince him to make amends. Loretta complies and soon she and Ronny have reluctantly fallen in love. Meanwhile, Loretta’s father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is carrying on an affair, and his wife, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) spends most of the movie trying to discern why men have affairs, while also enjoying a brief flirtation with a college professor (John Mahoney) who just can’t figure out why his own affairs with his students are always blowing up in his face.
With each subsequent viewing, I come to see this more and more as a movie of reactions, some of which are focused on, some of which take place in the background and have to be looked for. The final sequence of the film, which eventually finds all of the characters gathered in the Castorini kitchen has some of the best, beginning with Rose’s reaction to Loretta’s predicament with the Cammareri brothers. Loretta has spent the night with Ronny, unaware that Johnny has returned early from Sicily. There’s a knock at the door and Loretta and Rose assume it’s Johnny. Loretta quickly runs to get changed and asks Rose to answer the door, but Rose just stands at the table, forcefully shaking her head, and it honestly never fails to make me laugh. My favourite reaction, though, comes earlier than this, during a speech Ronny makes to Loretta in which he declares that he doesn’t care if he burns in hell or if she burns in hell, and she makes a brief face and kind of shakes her head like no, of course not.
This speech that Ronny makes to Loretta is one of the great movie speeches ever and elevates this film above your standard romantic comedy. “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.” Romantic comedies thrive on ideas about soulmates and happily ever after, but the characters in this movie are so hilariously reluctant about their feelings for each other, so cynical about the benefits of being in love with the person you’re with (Rose’s advice to Loretta? “Don’t fall in love with them. It just gives them an excuse to drive you crazy.”), that you just want to hug them.
Moonstruck works not only because it has an excellent script, but also because the actors are so good – each and every one of them. When Rose announces to Cosmo that she’s aware of his affair (at the breakfast table, in front of Loretta and Ronny and Cosmo’s father – more wonderful reactions), he informs everyone that one day a man understands that his life is built on nothing. “Your life is not built on nothing,” Rose replies, and the reading of this line alone would have been enough to earn Dukakis the Oscar she won. The mixture of sadness and indignation in the way she says it, and then how she softens and adds, “Te amo.” Gardenia is very good, too, and you believe that these are two people who have been married and sparring with each other for decades. If the film centered on Cosmo and Rose, rather than Loretta and Ronny, it would still be utterly entertaining and charming.
This is a film that not only makes you feel good when you watch it, but makes you feel like you’ve been rewarded. It doesn’t present you with impossibly perfect people, nor does it insult you by turning its plot around the random stupidity of its characters. These are smart people (quirky, but smart) who know how things are and, most importantly, know themselves. These are very melodramatic people (on separate occasions both Ronny and Loretta threaten to/lament that they haven’t already killed themselves) but ultimately so lovable that you don’t really want the story to end because you just want to spend more time with them. If you haven’t seen this movie, go out and rent it. You won’t regret it.