“Moonstruck” (1987) reconsidered. I know. Suspend your skepticism.

9 March 2013

I’m going to say it without shame: Moonstruck remains a goofy and immensely pleasurable ensemble film 25 years after its original release.

Here’s what I never quite realized on my previous viewings: it’s entirely about sex amongst middle-aged and senior men and women. Yet unlike the recent spate of Films About Older People (Hope SpringsThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it doesn’t announce a target audience. Rather, Moonstruck folds it all into a comedy that still works so long as you’re not determined to take any of it very seriously — and there’s nary a teenager or 20-something to distract us from all the older folks happily boinking. It’s kind of great.

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When my mom saw the film back in the 80s, she pronounced it “stupid.” (She has no tolerance for frothy films.) So let me ask you to set aside your skepticism about silly films like this one. Yet despite its embrace of the goofy — as well as its over-the-top, romanticized Italian Brooklyn — the cast is great and the jokes remain really good. This film that isn’t trying to be anything more than diverting.

So it’s kind of delightful to realize that as the 1980s was specializing in teen-oriented sex comedies, this film let older people have and want sex.

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Moonstruck is also a Cinderella story — in which the dowdy, grey-haired, humorless accountant Loretta (Cher) lets herself flirt with real passion and love for the first time since her husband died (and then she visits the beauty parlor!). She just got engaged to the foolish, 50-something Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) because … well, because she wants to change her bad luck in life. No, she doesn’t love him. No, this isn’t going to be a passionate marriage. As Johnny heads off to visit his dying mother in Sicily, we know perfectly well that he won’t last long as her fiancé.

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Loretta moves through the same grooves of life she’s inhabited for years, such that even when she meets Johnny’s long estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), she doesn’t know what to do in the face of all his rage at his brother, whom he blames for maiming his hand. (Actually, one of my favorite scenes is in the basement of the Cammareri Bros. Bakery, where Ronny shovels coal into the ovens, and where Cage gets to do his kookiest and most interesting acting: “I lost my hand! I lost my girl! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” You can see he learned a lot from making Raising Arizona earlier that year.)

So she takes him upstairs and cooks him a steak and lets him cool down.

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Jeez, she’s stuck in a rut. Nothing exemplifies it more than when she attempts to diagnose Ronny’s misery while he eats his steak. “You can’t see what you are. I can see everything. You are a wolf,” she pronounces — a wolf who chewed off its own foot in order to escape a bad relationship with a disloyal woman. Sure, she sounds definitive, but it’s not even an original thought; she heard the same words out of the mouths of the bickering owners of the Sweetheart Liquor Store the night before.

Well, the joke’s on her: he sweeps her off her feet — yes, literally — and they spend the rest of the day in bed. Nor are they the only ones gettin’ it on. So are Loretta’s aunt and uncle (pictured above). So is Loretta’s adulterous father. So is the 50-something lecherous NYU professor (John Mahoney), whose girlfriends dump him at the little Italian joint where Loretta’s miserable mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis) tries to get a quiet bite and mull over the fact that she has a philandering husband.

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OMG, Dukakis is so good in this role. She won Best Supporting Actress that year, of course. What I like best is her little moans of comic misery. (Note to self: issue little moans more often.)

Now, one can argue that my premise is off-base — how can this be a film about sex for older people if we have the youthful, sweaty Nicolas Cage decorating the screen for us with all his chest hair? I was surprised to find he was only 24 when he made this film.

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

Cher after her Cinderella makeover just in time for a night at the opera

In my own defense, I think few would have read him as so young. Not only was he supposed to be the brother of the 56-yr-old Aiello, but Cage had appeared in several parts that had made him appear older (Peggy Sue Got MarriedRaising Arizona), so contemporary audiences were used to reading him as older. I had pegged Cage’s character here as in his mid-30s. (I like it that he seems to have been on a roll with older women as he made these films: Cher [age 41], Holly Hunter [age 30], Kathleen Turner [age 33]; this says a lot about his particular version of appeal at the time.)

Speaking of Cage, have you played Nicolas Cage Roulette? This site will randomly call up a Cage film via Netflix for you. I got Adaptation (2002), a true classic. But be warned: you might get one of the stinkers.

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The film also upholds real relationships rather than impractical and/or absurd ones, in large part by giving us a glimpse of Mahoney’s ridiculous professor who insists on dating his students. “She’s too young for you,” Loretta and Rose each (independently) pronounce about his affairs.

This statement — delivered twice, with the same affect, to great comic effect — encompasses less finger-wagging than you might expect, and shows how neatly the film was directed. Rather than sound preachy, the women simply mean to convey bluntly that adults should know better when they enter into impossible relationships. It’s less moralistic than matter-of-fact.

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Which is funny, considering how impractical is Loretta’s affair with Ronny — he of the wooden fingers, he of the passion for tragic opera, he of the crazy “gypsy eyes.” When the sardonic Rose asks, “Do you love him, Loretta?” and she says, “I love him awful, Ma,” Rose can only say, “That’s too bad.” You know they’ll make each other crazy as much as they make each other happy. 

But then we already knew that, didn’t we? — from the earlier scene when Ronny tells her:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed.

I know: goofy as shit. I love it.

 

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6 Responses to ““Moonstruck” (1987) reconsidered. I know. Suspend your skepticism.”

  1. Becky Says:

    This is one of my favorite movies! It has almost everything I love in a movie. I much prefer it to all of the dark, dark, dark movies that make me feel as though I had just watched the Sandy Hook massacre report on the news. I don’t enjoy the newer movies that are styled like docu-dramas and make the world too much with me. If I want to be reminded/educated about all the depressing things in life, I will watch a documentary! I like both types of film, but movies are, in my view, principally to entertain. Stepping off my soap box now………….

    • Didion Says:

      I’m omnivorous when it comes to film (as anyone can see here) but watching this again made me wonder whether I need to revisit the very best rom-coms of my childhood. When they’re good, they’re so, so good.


  2. Thanks for the memory. Rarely see a movie more than once but it will be a third time for this one. Sometimes we wonder if a movie made in NYC has particular appeal because we know the streets and feel of it is so familiar. Not sure if a similar movie could be produced today. Everything so niche-based. Though appreciated my old peers having a good time and work in “Marigold Hotel,” am not particularly drawn to more of the same.

    Can’t you Imagine demographic charts dominating the pitch for a film. “This one would work with the 51 to 56 year olds.” sigh.


  3. I love ‘Moonstruck’!
    But the post about magazine bylines is just so depressing 😦

    • Didion Says:

      Which is why excellent writers like you need to write for popular publications more often!

      And yes, isn’t Moonstruck a delight? Watching it end-to-end again for the first time in ages reminds me of its truly tight script. It’s so worth watching this again in its full, no-commercials version.

  4. Mary D. Says:

    Though the film seems “entirely about sex amongst middle-aged and senior men and women,” this is not its actual theme which, to me, seems mainly to be the triumph of love over human imperfection. Seen in this light, the ages of the characters become completely incidental to the real message, though the participation of older characters in the action just made the message all the more meaningful. The interplay of aging people and the ageless fundamentals of life is what makes this film both endearing and uplifting by turns. This is why there was no need to limit Moonstruck to a target audience and why the film had such a broad appeal. We continue to take risks for love throughout our life, and the results can sometimes last long after our youth fades away.

    That such a relatively complex idea was handled so deftly and with such a light comedic touch never ceases to amaze me. The tightly-written script and spot-on performances are a real joy, chock full of excellent comedic moments that have worn quite well over the years. For these reasons, I think Moonstruck is a stroke of genius and quite possibly one of the best romantic comedies of all time.


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