A romantic comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Cher has no business being this good. That tends to be the sentiment, anyhow. But it is this good, and so are they. Cher is lovely as a woman whose frank outlook on life can’t hide a romantic streak. Cage’s mania is expertly channeled, giving him exuberant ideals to proclaim when he does his shouting. Together, they are a romantic pairing for the ages. Great as they are, however, the scenes with Ronny and Loretta are not typically what comes to mind when Moonstruck pops into my head. Instead, it is the memorable supporting cast that takes the spotlight.
Loretta is engaged to marry Johnny, a man she likes but does not love. As soon as he proposes, he is off to Italy to be with his dying mother. Upon his return, they will be married. While he is gone, he asks Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny to the wedding. When she meets Ronny, the two share an immediate connection, one that Loretta spends the rest of the story trying to deny. Interspersed throughout this primary storyline are scenes focused on Loretta’s family – her mother, Rose; her father, Cosmo; her Aunt Rita and Uncle Raymond. These characters make up several minor subplots that are far richer than they ought to be. There are too many moments to include here, but I couldn’t choose just one either. I’ll begin with my favorite.
This review started as another Inside A Scene article. I watched Moonstruck for the second time after reading a similar feature over at the AV Club called Scenic Routes. This particular article was on the Coen Brother’s Barton Fink, singling out the small but memorable performance by John Mahoney as a William Faulkner-esque writer driven mad by Hollywood. It was a posthumous tribute, published early this year. I had forgotten the role, but I vividly remembered it the moment I was reminded. It motivated me to revisit another small, but memorable role of Mahoney’s, this time as Perry, a slightly boorish, mostly charming University professor. He’s present almost right from the start of the film – in the background at the restaurant where Johnny proposes, briefly interrupting everyone’s dinner when his young date throws a drink in his face.
This appears to be a common occurrence, and sure enough, it happens again. This time, Loretta’s mother, Rose, is in attendance. She finds herself eating alone, and so she invites the professor to join her. Rose suspects her husband is having an affair. She poses a question to the professor: “Why do men chase women?” She believes it is because they fear death. Her dinner partner at least partially confirms her suspicions. He is the usual cliché, the professor who dates his students in order to feel young again. But like all its other cliches, Moonstruck gives life to it.
There’s an incredible warmth to Mahoney’s performance. It tempers Perry’s more unsavory qualities, but Rose never sees him for anything less than what he is. He is to be pitied and humored, but only to a point. After their dinner is over, she lets the professor walk her home, but declines to invite him inside. Why? “Because I know who I am.” Moonstruck knows who she is, too. The same goes for every other character.
Later in the night, Johnny returns to New York unexpectedly, his mother having made a miraculous recovery. He must see Loretta immediately, but she isn’t home. Rose invites Johnny to stay awhile and asks him the same question. Why do men chase women? He begins in the abstract, going all the way back to Genesis. “God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back.” Rose presses him further, asking why a man would need more than one woman. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe because he fears death.”
If I can highlight one final scene, I’d like share a moment between Aunt Rita and Uncle Raymond. Earlier in the evening, Raymond told a story back from the days when Cosmo was courting Rose. Raymond woke up in the night and discovered Cosmo outside his house, staring up at Rose’s window, illuminated by an impossibly large full moon. Cosmo pretends not to remember, in no mood to be reminded of the man he once was, but Raymond knows it wasn’t a dream. He knows what he saw that night. Looking out his window decades later, he sees the same moon in the sky. Rita watches him from their bed. “You know something,” she says, “In that light, with that expression on your face, you look about twenty-five years old.”
Though it lets its protagonists get carried away with their romantic declarations, as Ronny does virtually every time he opens his mouth, Moonstruck is wise enough to surround its young lovers with couples that have been at it much longer. This story belongs to Rose and Cosmo, and to Rita and Raymond, as much as it does to Loretta and Ronny. Their scenes do more than pad out the runtime. They lend the film its depth.
I’ve watched Moonstruck three times so far this year. My love for it has grown each time. It is the sort of film I recommend to others in the hope that I might be better understood. Not that I am any great mystery. Moonstruck isn’t either. It is a zany ethnic comedy, a loving send-up to Italian-American clichés. Above all else, it is a love story that is as pragmatic as it is superstitious. The balance of the latter two is the key ingredient of the film’s success. Love is elevated into the realm of God, then brought back down to earth. Years of history define the many relationships, as do the bitterness and weariness that come with it. Even the most passionate love grows ordinary with the passage of time, and that’s okay. Still, even after all those years there is magic to be found.
Every so often, the full moon returns, a little larger than usual.