There isn’t a fuller or prettier moment in the enticing “Moonstruck” (UA Egyptian, AMC Century 14 and Cineplex Odeon in Universal City) than Cher, still in opera clothes at daybreak, kicking a beer can up a silent Brooklyn Heights street, rapturously aware--for the first time--of life’s fearful and astonishing possibilities.
As a young widow whose life suddenly shifts 180 degrees under the spell of an extraordinary full moon, Cher finally has a role that lets her comic sensibilities out for a romp. Pitted against some of the best character actors anywhere--Vincent Gardenia, Julie Bovasso, Danny Aiello, Louis Guss, Feodor Chaliapin and especially Olympia Dukakis as her mother--Cher drops, with a Brooklyn-Italian lilt, into a juicy romantic comedy character as though she’d been brought up in the neighborhood.
“Moonstruck” is such nourishing comedy. It satisfies every hunger, especially the irrational ones that seem to hit hardest at holidays: hunger for impetuous romance and for the reassuring warmth of family, for reckless abandon, and for knowing who we are and what we want.
An American movie with foreign-film sensibilities, “Moonstruck’s” depths come from their perfect balance of writing and direction. Those talents are a new-to-the-screen writer, John Patrick Shanley, a first-generation Irish-American playwright from the Bronx, and veteran Norman Jewison, a Canadian director who has made loftier films (“Agnes of God,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “A Soldier’s Story”) but never a niftier one.
If ever two women knew who they were, it’s Loretta (Cher) and Rose Castorini (Dukakis), a mother and daughter with a certainty about them that is devastatingly attractive. Rose’s certainty might also come under the heading of dread: She’s pretty positive that her husband Cosmo (Gardenia) is stepping out on her.
As for Loretta, as she goes around her Italian-accented neighborhood, doing taxes and bookkeeping, she combines the qualities of a mother, a great executive secretary and a great beauty.
But as a childless woman whose husband has been dead seven years, she downplays her every asset mightily, pulling back that fairy-tale cloud of hair, ignoring the little crabgrass of gray that’s appeared. As the film begins, she even becomes engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), who’s not above stimulating his scalp in public when he’s nervous. Clearly, Mr. Johnny, in his early 40s, hasn’t a romantic--or an impetuous--cell in his body.
Before he takes off to the bedside of his dying mother in Palermo, Mr. Johnny has only one crucial request: that his new fiancee look up his younger brother, Ronny. His hope is that the bad blood between them will be washed away in the wave of good will for his and Loretta’s wedding.
Well, we’re all adults here. Even before we find out that Nicolas Cage is Ronny, an impassioned baker with a wooden hand and a soul as hot as his furnaces, we know that Mr. Johnny had better not dally long in Palermo. But even with our feet braced for the inevitable, “Moonstruck” has delights up its sleeve.
They come from Shanley’s gorgeous dialogue: the tart, real talk of people who’ve lived together their lives long, filtered through a poet’s sensibility. They come, too, from Jewison’s mainspring-timing of these exchanges. A sample: Rose is awakened to hear that Loretta is engaged. “Do you love him, Loretta?” “No,” her daughter answers, truthful to the last. “Good,” her mother answers. “When you love them, they drive you crazy, ‘cause they know they can.”
This is lovely, insightful speech, delivered with the satisfying speed and snap of a card sharp shuffling a deck. All of “Moonstruck” is played this way, somewhere between a great fugue and a great baseball game.
Musically, “Moonstruck” is built around “La Boheme,” whose themes we see and hear at every turn. The lupine Ronny’s more civilized side is his passion for grand opera, and in the movie’s great Cinderella moment, he lures Loretta to “La Boheme” at the Met. (Shanley doesn’t mess with Italian stereotypes--Loretta has no idea where to find the Met.)
“Moonstruck” themes are polar opposites: the inviolability of the family and the question of why men need to run after women. The solid joys of the family are illustrated on every hand as--under the spell of this almost magical moon--couples of every age turn to one another with a sweet desire that no amount of time has staled.
Rose has decided sagely that men chase women because they fear death, but she needs corroboration. It comes from an unexpected meeting with a charming, thoroughly unprincipled college professor (John Mahoney, last seen in “Tin Men”).
The film makers themselves seem ambivalent. If the movie ends with a heartfelt toast, “To family,” it also gives a stricken, envious glance at the brief glories of the extra-marital encounter. (Anita Gillette contributes that bit of deliciousness.) And it puts in Mahoney’s mouth one of the most charming rationales for the brief encounter that you’ll ever hear.
Mahoney’s deftness is only one part of this perfect mosaic of performances. Cage attacks the role of Ronny with a nice balance between unbridled romanticism and tongue-in-cheek seriousness; he’s marvelous. Everyone is, yet Olympia Dukakis seems to have an extra sheen of maturity and wisdom that moves her work from authoritative into memorable.
The production itself is a joy, from the photography of David Watkin, who seems to give every scene its own magical glow, to Philip Rosenberg’s fine production design, Lou Lombardo’s crisp editing and the costumes of Theoni Aldredge, perfect, right down to Cher’s ruby slippers, which carry their own movie memories. And whether it came from editor, director or writer, that shimmering dissolve from the moon itself to the lights of Mr. Johnny’s approaching plane is what the craft of movie making is all about.