Loretta Castorini once tried living in a romantic comedy, but her husband was hit and killed by a bus. Cher's delivery of this revelation renders it almost an afterthought, like the deflated punchline of a poor joke. She's been raised to marry young and for children, and when she defies this natural order and does so for love, the universe sent along a bus to crush her dreams (and her late husband). The opening scenes of Moonstruck detail how detached and impervious she is to the typical attractions of the genre. Loretta is a tight-lipped, business-first accountant, pretty but aging, and a pragmatist at heart. When her boyfriend Johnny obliterates every last convention of proposing, she reacts with deadpan precision as if it was another tax return to file (see how she rattles off her sins at confession, and slips her infidelity in there). Why tempt the gods a second time?
New York is a city where strange and magical things can happen, and with 'That's Amore' opening the film, the most Italian song in English ever, serenading the moon-lit skyline, we more than expect it. The interiors of the Castorini home are brought to life with a warm palette, enlarged in an eccentric, sitcom way, with each piece of wooden furniture or rustic appliance telling a whole story in itself. The rooms are cramped and possess an eternal, lived-in quality about them so we see exactly how the family traditions are retained, and how they can squeeze several generations into the same building at once. They stage confrontations around the breakfast and dinner table, with dialogue like questioning jabs at lifestyle choices, and well- meaning intentions going awry.
At Christmas, the full moon beckons and these characters come to life. Nicholas Cage enters in a role that no one, not even Loretta, could expect or begin to explain. Cage is infamous for his eccentric wildness, and as he recounts his tale it begins to overcome the facts. It turns out that Johnny ordered a loaf of bread, and in the ensuing distraction Ronny lost not only his hand but also his girl. It's supposed to be tragedy, but Cage renders it a comedy, crying dramatically for a knife to end his life, asking us not to question the bizarre line of thinking that led him to blame his brother. The wooden hand is the cherry on top, revealed in a delirious monologue so deliciously full of irony and self-imposed gravitas that only Cage could ever pull it off, but also make it funny. Later as he tries to persuade Loretta into his bed again, he gives a speech so vehemently trying to subvert conventional romance it doesn't realise it's drowning in clichés. Cage splutters and staggers so often we realise he is making it up as he goes, and finishes with a desperate flourish: "GET. IN. MY. BED!". The way he so obviously reaches into the (shallow) depths of his soul will have even the hardest-hearted cynic giggling.
Soon the stiff accountant is tossed out the window and diving into bed with her fiance's brother. The soundtrack assists this shift, transforming an indifferent city into one of love and mystery. Listen to how Hyman's flutes and trumpets twist curiously as Loretta shops for something to wear to the opera, and how its inklings of mischief suggest something a little more sexy than her usual costume. Later he uses a sax heavy mood piece as she prepares next to the crackling fireplace, an atmosphere ripped straight from an old-fashioned noir, Loretta shedding her skin to reveal a newer woman. The film's most luminous moment comes when the pair join hands at the opera, and her tears melt away the last of her resistance. Jewison never orientates us with a wide shot, so the moon looms in the background of the stage, casting the same magical spell over the audience as it does to the city, blasting through windows and blinds, making night like day and old men twenty five.
The one person immune to this trance is Rose. Dukakis is a great casting because we can immediately see how Loretta retains the same long, angular nose, lean face and no-nonsense approach. While the whole city is under the moon's spell, she's dining alone and searching for answers to her husband's affair. She encounters a regular of the story, and the way the professor switches from preying on young college students to her is so smooth and full of charm that anyone but Rose would have fallen for it. But she knows herself quite clearly. Her character is intricate without ever upsetting the balance of the film - she believes her husband might have a good reason for his disappearances, but won't simply toss aside the decades of marriage when he doesn't. Jewison depicts some of that Cosmo charm with the same peculiar humour that he affords to the whole cast. We see his pitch about different types of metal piping, and the passion in his gestures and insistence on the best material for his customers, and then swings the camera around in a later scene to reveal how he utilises the same showmanship to woo his mistress.
In Moonstruck, Jewison takes a strange phrase and diffuses it into the lives of a New Yorker family with uncanny results. Grown men turn into sex-crazed werewolves, old couples are re-energised, and new relationships are grafted. Do we dare question why a man with a wooden hand would work all day in front of an oven? No, because the story is beyond the mere logic of the ordinary and everyday. In the morning-after of the miracle, Loretta skips in her heels and kicks cans, and the opera pipes up to accompany her street waltz although there is no singer in sight, because she is moonstruck. And along the way, we witness how funny and tricky the trials and tribulations of love can be.