Sunday, March 13, 2011

New on Blu: "Moonstruck"

The big, bright moon that fills the sky in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is like another member of its rich cast of eccentric characters, gazed upon in sadness and longing and wonder. The people in the film speak of bad blood and bad luck and curses; the rise and fall of the lunar body is one more explanation for their victories, or an excuse for their misfortune. Maybe it’s both. But that’s all a cover—their lives are what they are because of the human heart, and its stubborn refusal to do as it is told.

Loretta Castorini (Cher) has a simple life: a widow, she still lives in her parents’ big house in Brooklyn. She works as a freelance bookkeeper, is going a little grey, and is dating the slightly schlubby but well-meaning Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). She’s 37, but she looks older than that, and feels older still. When Johnny Cammareri proposes, she accepts—not out of love or passion, but because he is kind to her, and she likes him and can take care of him, and what else is there for her? The engagement sealed, Johnny goes off to Sicily, to his mother’s deathbed. He asks a favor of her while he is gone: that she goes to see his brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). There is bad blood between them, but Johnny wants his only brother to come to his wedding. This is where things get complicated.

But Moonstruck is not just about Loretta and those men. It is also about her parents, Rose and Cosmo, beautifully played by Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia; her scenes with them (particularly in the first act) spin like a top, they have such crackerjack comic precision. Cosmo is stepping out on Rose, who knows, and hasn’t yet decided what to do about it. Loretta’s old grandfather lives with them as well—he and his five dogs, who go with him everywhere. (“Old man,” Rose warns him at the dinner table, “you give those dogs another piece of my food, I’m gonna kick you ‘till you’re dead.”) And then there’s Uncle Raymond (Louis Guss) and Aunt Rita (Julie Bovasso), who float in and out at key moments—including the climactic sequence, when everything and everyone in the story tumbles together into a breakfast that unfolds with the clockwork timing of a door-slamming farce.

They’re not the only characters; there’s a sense of community in every scene, right from the restaurant proposal, where the background is crowded with commentators and kibitzers, including sad-eyed John Mahoney as a college professor with a bad habit of dating (and insulting) his young female students. Later, when he sits across from aged and sophisticated Rose, he realizes almost immediately that he’s met his match; you can see it in the way he smiles when she tells him, “What you don’t know about women is a lot.”

And so on. John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay has got a wonderful, rich comic spirit; it’s got all sorts of marvelous moments, from the pathos of the old man and his dogs howling at the moon to the high comedy of Loretta’s scene at confession (“What was that second thing?”). But it is also serious business—the matter-of-fact way that Rose comes to understand what her husband is up to (and how she addresses it), the reckless romanticism of Loretta’s fling with Ronny Cammareri.

This was the film that started to change my opinion about Cage, whose work before this was often too self-conscious, weird purely for the sake of being weird. Here, as in his best performances, Cage is forceful, passionate, and more than a little nutso. His relationship with Loretta is entirely improbable and utterly convincing; the key to his character is his love for the opera, and Ronny traffics in those big emotions and grandiose gestures. Shanley’s script is smart enough to know (but not say) that this is what draws her to him—and his speech to her at his front door (“We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts, and love the wrong people”) is his aria. It is still one of Cage’s shining moments onscreen.

Cher won a well-deserved Oscar for her sly work as Loretta, a woman who has always played it safe and manages to keep from getting dizzy as her whole world spins off its orbit. She’s good, in very different ways, with everyone in the movie; she understands the complexity of their relationships, and regards everyone in Loretta’s life with the same straight-faced practicality. Dukakis took home the Academy Award that year as well, and she couldn’t be better; her timing is razor-sharp, and one of the film’s smallest but most distinct pleasures is in how she asks, twice, “Do you love him, Loretta,” and each payoff is just as good as the other.

Sweet, smart, laugh-out-loud funny, and lushly romantic, Moonstruck has only improved in the nearly 25 years since its original release. Fox’s new Blu-ray boats an impressive transfer and fine extras, but most of all, it offers up an excuse to return to this wonderful film. If you’ve missed it before now, seek it out. It’s utterly delightful.

"Moonstruck" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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