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Savant Blu-ray Review

1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date February 15, 2011 / 19.99
Starring Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney, Louis Guss, Feodor Chaliapin Jr..
David Watkin
Film Editor Lou Lombardo
Original Music Dick Hyman
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Produced by Norman Jewison, Patrick Palmer
Directed by Norman Jewison

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Lovers of Golden Age movies often bemoan the lack of openhearted modern pictures about love and romance. Modern comedies may entertain notions of love at first sight or the magic of human attraction, but, given the state of entertainment today, many also have to make room for crude jokes about bodily functions. Today's more realistic dramas, perhaps rightfully so, portray relationships as something totally different than an emotional fantasy.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley shook up critics with his quirky drama Five Corners, a clever slice of New York attitude that didn't prepare audiences for the unabashed romantic flight of fancy that is 1987's Moonstruck. The movie's wonderfully amusing characters are perceived through a slightly stylized filter. Although director Norman Jewison softened some of writer Shanley's edgy material, the author's romantic notions come through strongly. The powerful director and the superior script must have convinced the (then) flighty, insecure actress Cher to play the character as written and to abstain from using her star clout to push the film out of shape. The result was an Oscar win for her fine performance, as well as for supporting actress Olympia Dukakis and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley.

New York. Having lost her husband to an accident "practical" accountant Loretta Castorini (Cher) decides to settle for Danny Aiello (Johnny Cammareri), whom everybody calls a "big baby" but Loretta knows to be a good and well-meaning man. But when Johnny goes back to Italy to visit his sickly mother, Loretta meets his brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), a baker who has a wooden hand. Ronny harbors an irrational, fierce resentment toward his brother, who "has everything"; Loretta and Ronny's first meeting is so intense that they sleep together immediately. This insanity sends Loretta and her family into a tailspin -- especially Loretta's mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis), who resents her husband Cosmo, a plumbing contractor (Vincent Gardenia). Cosmo is too cheap to pay for Loretta's wedding but lavishes gifts upon his mistress. Rose, meanwhile, expresses frustration at the attentions of a younger man (John Mahoney) who normally preys upon his female students. Ronny agrees to leave Loretta alone and to not attend the wedding if she'll accompany him just once to the opera. But the night reveals a haunting full moon that seemingly affects all the couples in the Castorinis' Italian neighborhood.

Although everyone associated with Moonstruck is wonderful, the strongest praise must go to John Patrick Shanley's insightful and touching screenplay, which examines the problems of ordinary people and then adds a rare spark of charm and whimsy. Cher actually lets herself look mousy, with a nondescript Italian-American hairstyle and wearing dull blacks and grays. Neither she nor her family and friends are ethnic stereotypes that speak in half-Italian or overstate their characters with hand gestures. But there are plenty of family fireworks when people gather around the dinner table. Papa Cosmo is a sour-faced malcontent convinced that everybody is trying to get into his wallet; his reluctance to talk about anything is a clear symptom of guilt over his recreational love affair. The wonderful Rose Castorini goes against the standard image of fat Italian mothers ignorant of life beyond their kitchens and the hugs and kisses of their children. Inside the house, Rose is fed up with her straying hubby's avoidance of her affection, and retaliates with a clean line of sarcasm. Outside the house she's a proud and dignified lady. Rose doesn't mind discussing romance with a total stranger, but knows herself too well to be taken in by yet another man.

It falls on the grown mama's boy Johnny Cammareri to play the clown, but Rose continues to respect him no matter how foolish he looks. Moonstruck's most difficult achievement, for which credit must be afforded director Jewison, is the overheated romantic chemistry between Loretta and Ronny. Nicolas Cage gets away with chewing up Shanley's stylized, somewhat poetic dialogue because his character is an opera lover and a romantic dreamer. Shanley's original title was The Bride and the Wolf, which sounds like an Ed Wood horror movie or something from Akira Kurosawa; in his undershirt, straight from the baking ovens, Nicolas Cage does look like some kind of wild animal. His loss of a hand (in a Stephen Sondheim-like baking accident) makes him figuratively a wolf that got a paw caught in a trap and had to gnaw it free. Cher allows herself to play Loretta as taken completely by surprise by this wolf man. In the film's most quoted comedy moment she snaps back and slaps back at Ronny, but her surrender is delightfully appropriate. Loretta thought she was making a choice for dull security, and instead quite literally throws herself to the wolf.

All this might be meaningless if Shanley didn't enlarge his theme to embrace every couple in the show. Everybody (save perhaps Rose and Cosmo) works out their personal issues through verbal sparring, but love with a capital "L" is shown to be the glue between every mated pair. Loretta witnesses a couple of storekeepers avowing their love while making change for her, and smiles. Two family relations (Julie Bovasso and Louis Guss) experience the matrimonial magic of the "bella luna" along with Loretta and Ronny, which in 1987 seemed nothing short of a movie miracle -- the pair are over sixty and nobody's idea of photogenic, but the situation and their affection makes them beautiful. Moonstruck actually acknowledges that people don't turn into dried vegetables at age fifty.

Not since Billy Wilder and his mentor Ernst Lubitsch has a romance been so generous with its bit players. Waiters and customers and even passers-by witness Johnny's proposal and the professor's faux pas, and are touched or sympathetic. Rose's ancient father (Feodor Chaliapin of For Whom the Bell Tolls at first seems to be playing an unnecessary comic relief part, until his dogs begin baying at the "bella luna" as well. Moonstruck believes in the possibility of magic. When Loretta strolls home at dawn, kicking a can in the street like a love-struck teenager, there's no denying that the magic is real.

Shanley's Five Corners didn't avoid darker content and ideas, and Moonstruck follows suit by examining the flip side of romantic bliss. Death and bitterness seem built into romance; as Norman Jewison says in the audio commentary, for every wonderful relationship leaves behind someone whose dream didn't come true. Loretta loved her first husband only a short while before she lost him. A bitter old woman at the airport curses her sister, who she accuses of stealing her lover long ago. Johnny's crafty mother uses the threat of her death to monopolize Johnny's affection.

Ronny Cammareri prefers to think that his crippling accident is some kind of unjust curse, and it seems all too possible that he ravishes Loretta as a way to get back at his brother and break that curse. Finally, Rose asks the philandering college professor straight out if men make fools of themselves chasing women because they fear death. When he agrees, she throws "the truth" in her husband's face. "You're going to die anyway", Rose promises Cosmo, although he doesn't know what she's talking about.

Moonstruck has a cagey but romantic view of people and love that in 1987 was a delightful contrast to the years of cynical attitudes masquerading as naturalism. Some of its major episodes, including the marvelous ten-minute final breakfast scene, are like masterful scenes in a stage play. The movie was a big success, which in this case is a happy ending well deserved.

John Patrick Shanley won great acclaim a couple of years ago for the movie adaptation of his play, Doubt. I still have a soft spot for his "now for something completely different" fantasy Joe versus The Volcano from back in 1990; perhaps some day it will be recognized as a classic as well. Much more "mythical" than his other films, it features an enormous hallucinatory moon that inspires Joe to pray, to thank God for his life.

MGM's Blu-ray of Moonstruck will surprise viewers who only know it from flat cable channel broadcasts. MGM's earliest DVD unaccountably provided an unsatisfying full-frame transfer. The show benefits greatly from the handsome cinematography of David Watkin, and the increased resolution of HD makes the dark interiors and warm lighting all the more attractive. We also again applaud Cher, for not ruining the movie by insisting that Loretta be more glamorous, or the character monopolize more screen time.  1

The Blu-ray has featurettes about the cast and the music by Dick Hyman, but we learn the most from the feature commentary with director Jewison, writer Shanley, and star Cher. We learn that Norman Jewison pruned the script of some of Shanley's darker ideas, sidebars that would certainly have compromised the film's eventual romantic spell. Addressing the theme that every romantic pairing leaves an unhappy person behind, Jewison says that he nixed a detail at the finish that would have shown the girl who works with Ronny in the bakery despondent because she realizes that Ronny and Loretta are now a couple. I think the film gives this character her due by the look she has on her face when she first sees Loretta -- the girl knows she hasn't hooked Ronny and that someday some woman will walk in and claim him. One look at Loretta, and she knows that day has come.

I've added a graphic of the original poster, above, as a way of griping about the disc box art. It jams an extra image of Nicolas Cage into the picture, ruining what was a near-perfect marketing image. Something about the final revised composite looks ... ridiculous.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Moonstruck Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, two featurettes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 4, 2011


1. I witnessed some of the post-production misery of Cher's vehicle Mermaids, which came from a terrific, sensitive screenplay and was afforded an excellent cast. The producer of Moonstruck returned as well, but Cher apparently didn't get along with the director. A power struggle ensued, and the director was replaced. Key dramatic scenes with Winona Ryder were dropped and a stack of needle-drop pop tunes was ladled onto the soundtrack to make the film seem a lightweight coming-of-age comedy. Nobody came off looking good, not even Cher. I saw rough cuts of both Mermaids and Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot that convince me that, if re-edited and re-constituted, both films could be vastly improved.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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