Editor’s note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
So many romantic comedies take place against a backdrop of the happy brightness of summer, or the picture-perfect colors of fall, or the sparkling whimsy of the holiday season. “Moonstruck,” playing against type, takes place in November. The skies are gray and cold, and everybody’s shivering on the Brooklyn streets in their bulky ’80s coats. It’s not a hopeful setting — and then it snows, just once, like magic. The snowflakes, as a character memorably observes, are perfect.
As is “Moonstruck,” the wistful 1987 rom-com starring an exquisite Cher, an absurdly young Nicolas Cage and a remarkable ensemble cast. Directed by Norman Jewison from a screenplay by playwright John Patrick Shanley, it’s long been my go-to movie when things seem dark, and it never fails to whisk me away into a place of love, laughter, warmth and screwball dialogue. Considering the state of things these days, I think we all need “Moonstruck” right about now. (Clearly the Criterion Collection thinks so; it’s finally releasing the movie on a special edition DVD, just out Nov. 17.)
Cher, who won an Oscar for her performance here, plays Loretta Castorini, a widowed bookkeeper in her late 30s who lives with her parents, Rose and Cosmo (Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia), and is determined to change her luck. Toward that end, she accepts a marriage proposal from her unexciting gentleman companion Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) who asks her, as he boards a plane to Palermo, to contact his estranged younger brother Ronny (Cage) and invite him to the wedding. She does so, and anyone who’s ever seen a rom-com can guess what happens next.
No summary, however, can properly describe the charms of “Moonstruck,” whose characters all seem enchanted by the full moon over Brooklyn that illuminates the movie. Loretta, an eminently practical woman (when Johnny complains that getting down on one knee to propose will ruin his suit, she shoots back “It came with two pairs of pants!”), doesn’t want to fall for Ronny; she’d rather cook him a steak and explain to him how his life went wrong. But she’s not quite as sensible as she thinks she is, once she meets Ronny’s yearning eyes. There’s a spark, lit by their immediate, hilarious arguing (“A bride without a head!” “A wolf without a foot!”), and stoked by the lusciously romantic music of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Ronny’s favorite opera.
That music is beautifully woven into the movie’s loveliest scene. Loretta, a Cinderella after the ball, slowly walks home the morning after her opera date with Ronny, languidly kicking a can down the street with her sparkly red heels. The music — ethereal, longing, celestial — seems to float around her; you know that she’s hearing it, reliving it, changed by it. Into her mother’s kitchen she sweeps, whirling to the music only she — and we — can hear, letting herself gently fall back down to earth. (Earth arrives quickly: “What the hell happened to you?” barks Rose.)
“Moonstruck” is a rare movie that can both move you with its beauty, and constantly make you laugh out loud. The final scene, in which two extended families gather in the Castorini kitchen, is a small masterpiece of comedy — and the fact that I can pretty much recite the dialogue along with the characters matters not a whit. I will never not laugh at the way Julie Bovasso’s Aunt Rita singsongs “It’s Johnny Camma-RE-ri,” or Dukakis’s delivery of the line “It was a miracle!,” or Ronny’s enthusiasm for oatmeal, or Loretta’s weeping grandfather (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.) admitting “I’m confused!” (Should you have need for a decent burn, you can do far worse than Loretta’s “In time you’ll drop dead and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!”)
The film is full of rich detail, such as the way the Castorini home looks like it hasn’t been updated since Rose and Cosmo were newlyweds, and the way that moon lights up every corner. (Even Cosmo’s mistress — dismissed by Loretta as “cheap goods” — gets her own bit of it; a moon charm dangles from a bracelet he gives her.) Everyone we meet, from the array of Loretta’s clients to the bakery assistant in love with Ronny, seems to have a story; Jewison and Shanley, with palpable affection for family and character and language, create a warm, welcoming world.
Ultimately, though, “Moonstruck” is a triumph of love, both old (Cosmo/Rose, Uncle Raymond/Rita) and new. “We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!” implores Ronny, standing with Loretta in that perfect moonlit snow, and somehow it seems like the most romantic declaration you’ve ever heard. Everyone, this wise film reminds us, looks beautiful in moonlight.