The scene: a modest little Italian restaurant somewhere in Brooklyn. A nervous, sweating man orders champagne for himself and his female guest, slipping the waiter a twenty to make sure things go smoothly. He makes excruciatingly awkward small talk and then abruptly suggests marriage, in the tone of voice one would use to suggest miniature golf. She is not impressed. Where’s the ring, she asks; you can’t have a proposal without a ring. Loosening his tie, he explains that he forgot that part, and, with the entire restaurant watching, he slips off his thick, gaudy pinky ring and cups it in her hand. Nope. She gives it back, because now she wants him to offer it on his knees; it’s not a proposal if he’s not kneeling. He is unsure – he looks to the crowd for support; finding none, he acquiesces. A long pause – then she takes the ring, and his entire face and body, every inch of him, sags with welcome relief. The tension is over, the crisis averted. Hey, she says, snapping him back to reality – don’t start relaxing; now we need to set a date. You can’t have a wedding without a wedding date…
And that’s how we enter the world of MOONSTRUCK, a fabulously romantic, sweet-hearted movie made all the sweeter by its unblinking honesty about just how unromantic, embarrassing, and just plain weird love can be.
We met the woman in this scene a few minutes earlier; she’s Loretta Castorini (Cher), a frumpy, mouthy neighborhood girl who lives with her extended family in a rambling old-time townhouse and makes a modest living doing accounting for all the little shops up and down the block. She was married once before, we learn, to a man she loved – but she soured on the idea of love after he was hit by a bus. Marriage still sounds like an okay idea, though, so she has accepted the proposal of her boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello), a nice guy she good-naturedly tolerates, and whom she looks forward to tolerating for many years to come. Johnny has an estranged younger brother, Ronny, he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and he asks her to extend the olive branch for him and invite Ronny to the wedding. When we see that the brother is played by a young, attractive Nicolas Cage, we begin to guess how this will unfold into a typical romantic comedy plot – and thankfully, we would be wrong, because MOONSTRUCK is more than that.
The movie takes the broad outlines of a romantic comedy – a girl caught between two men, one reliable and passionless and the other sexy and soulful – and instead spins what is essentially a yarn about an entire neighborhood, an entire way of life. We meet Loretta’s large, eccentric family, and Johnny and Ronny’s equally eccentric family, and the nice couple who run the bakery down the street, and the local barfly, and a host of other characters – this is a big, rich movie, with a lot going on. I don’t know if the real Brooklyn is or ever was like the magical, soft-focus one in this film, but the movie makes it a convincing place and populates it with convincing people – a real place, but with just a sprinkling of fairy dust.
Credit for this has to go to the dynamite cast. Cher may be the butt of Joan Rivers- and TMZ-style red carpet jokes now, but this DVD is inarguable proof that she really did deserve that Oscar. Her Loretta is a woman constructed entirely from utterly real, utterly believable mannerisms and habits of speech, and she more than holds her own against lifelong pros like Danny Aiello and Olympia Dukakis. Credit is also due to the quietly professional direction of Norman Jewison, who also gave us IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE HURRICANE. He doesn’t overwhelm us with technique, but simply gives us a series of real-feeling places and finds ways to move his camera around them; showing us what we need to see without ever calling attention to himself.
Someone who does call attention to himself is Nicolas Cage, seen here in one of his earliest roles. Much like his costar Cher, Cage’s oddball career choices may have made him an Internet punchline but there’s no denying his immense talent, and it is here on full display in MOONSTRUCK; he takes the somewhat operatic role of the passionate younger brother, who is missing a hand after a tragic bread-slicing accident, and gives us his full range – from overblown, over-the-top hysterics to smooth, low-key naturalism – and somehow makes it all work as part of the whole.
Video: MOONSTRUCK is a big, colorful movie packed with telling details and this Blu-Ray probably makes some of them – like the family photos in the back of key scenes – visible and legible for the first time since its original theatrical run. The 1:85:1, 1080p picture is as crisp and bright as a 25-year-old film can get.
Audio: Some of the choices made in the 5.1 DTS sound mix are unfortunate – there are some big, bassy sound effects that nearly drown out the dialogue for a few seconds on a couple of occasions – but not cripplingly so.
Commentary with Norman Jewison, Cher, and John Patrick Shanley – The director, star, and screenwriter have been separately recorded and edited together; I missed the opportunity for banter but welcomed the more or less constant flow of talk. Shanley, who also wrote JOE VS THE VOLCANO, is an especially interesting listen.
Moonstruck: At the Heart of An Italian Family – As making-of featurettes go, this is a solid, respectable effort, with contributions from a large swath of the cast and crew, although Cage and Cher only appear courtesy of puff pieces from the 1980s. An interesting digression showcases members of actual extended Italian families like the ones that inspired the film.
Pasta to Pastries: The Art of Fine Italian Food – Travel Channel host Mark DeCarlo takes us on a visual tour of the classic food of Little Italy. The connection to the film is tenuous but it’s actually an entertaining and kind of mouthwatering experience.
Music of Moonstruck – This brief featurette showcases the composer, director and others discussing the original score for MOONSTRUCK as well as its soundtrack of timeless lounge-era crooner tunes, but also takes an interesting and unusual detour by spotlighting the deliberate parallels between the story of the film and that of the opera Loretta and Ronny see on their first date, the classic La Bohême.