I’ve never hit on a way of describing “Moonstruck” as a film that’s genuinely good. Usually, I choose as its selling point its strangeness: It stars Cher and Nicolas Cage! It’s a romantic comedy in which people run around talking about wolves and death! What more could you want? Once, during an especially fevered pitch, I ended up acting out the scene where Cage bellows to a lovestruck assistant, “Bring me the big knife! I’m gonna cut my throat!” It’s better when he does it.
Although “Moonstruck” is no underdog—it won three Oscars, was one of the most financially successful movies of 1987, and is now a member of the Criterion Collection—its selling point has always been a problem. To see the movie is to love it, but you have to get people in front of it first. When the script—by John Patrick Shanley, an up-and-coming playwright whose first film, “Five Corners,” featured Jodie Foster and a very unlucky penguin—landed on the director Norman Jewison’s desk, it was called “The Bride and the Wolf.” (“One of the worst titles I have ever seen,” Jewison would write in his memoir.) Jewison asked Shanley’s agent, Jeannine Edmunds, who else had had a chance at the “dog-eared, coffee-stained, well-thumbed” script. “Everybody,” she told him.
The plot goes something like this: Loretta Castorini (Cher), a Brooklyn widow in her late thirties, has agreed to marry her casual beau, Johnny Cammareri. She doesn’t love him, but he’s “a sweet man.” A tortured interaction near the beginning of the film, in which Loretta instructs Johnny on how to properly propose to her, indicates that Johnny may not be much in love with Loretta either. But his mother’s dying, and somebody has to take care of him. In fact, he must fly out that night to Sicily, to sit by his mother’s deathbed, an event Loretta takes lightly. (“She’s dying,” she comments to her mother, after Johnny places a call. “But I could still hear her big mouth.”)
Johnny also leaves Loretta with a job: persuade his estranged brother, Ronny (Cage), who works in a bakery, to come to the wedding. When Loretta gets around to phoning Ronny, he snarls, “What’s wrong can never be made right,” and hangs up. A few scenes and a flipped table later, the two of them go to bed together. This creates, as you might imagine, a big mess. Meanwhile, Loretta’s father is having an affair. Her mother is asking pointed questions about why men might need more than one woman. Her grandfather frets about his household and goes everywhere with a pack of five dogs. At a local restaurant, there’s a professor who’s always getting a drink thrown in his face by a series of women undergraduates. And some combination of these people will, in time, all end up going to the same opera—another big mess.
If “Moonstruck” has a clear through line, it is about things that are wrong getting made right, a winding process that often involves committing some new wrongs along the way. The bad blood between the Cammareri brothers concerns an accident that took place five years prior. Johnny caused Ronny to look the wrong way while slicing some bread; Ronny cut off his own hand. Subsequently, his fiancée left him. Ronny has brooded on this, basically without ceasing, since it happened. One of Cage’s most famous lines in the movie comes when Ronny recites the story of his wound to an unimpressed Loretta. Exasperated by her response, he screams, “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice!” Part of the joke is that a monument is exactly what he’s become, a constant tribute to his own pain.
Loretta, however, correctly intuits that things are not quite so simple. When Ronny lost his hand, he also lost his fiancée. But perhaps he wanted to lose her, whether he admitted it or not; he had, in Loretta’s understanding, chewed off his own foot, like a wolf caught in a trap. What Ronny can’t live with is not his accident but his discovery of his own ruthlessness. What Loretta can’t admit is that she’s a wolf, too—not, as she seems to think, a woman who will do anything to become a bride. Like Ronny, she is torn between who she is and who she believes herself to be.
It is from this gap that “Moonstruck” mines its most precious material. There’s nothing wrong with being a wolf; most of us are at least a little lupine. (“I seen a wolf in everybody I ever met and I see a wolf in you,” we hear one woman remark to her husband.) But a wolf that doesn’t know it’s a wolf is dangerous: it’s then that people, and maybe even the wolf, can get hurt. If you’re in pain, you can howl at the moon. But to cover up your pain with cheap distraction—a halfhearted engagement, a silly grudge—is only to inflame the wound. For much of the movie, Loretta denies this; to her, the coverup is a form of agency, a way of making right what’s wrong. After a night at the opera, she admits to Ronny that she’s drawn to him, but that she doesn’t want to pursue the feeling. “I can take hold of myself,” she says. “I can say yes to some things, and no to other things that are going to ruin everything. . . . Otherwise, what good is this stupid life?”
Nothing is pushing Loretta away from Ronny but her own wish to feel in control, just as nothing is driving her father’s affair but his refusal to admit to his wife that he fears death. But you can’t choose to banish your feelings, even if you are not quite a slave to them. And death isn’t going to yield to even the canniest control. You can’t fix the fear of death—as Philip Larkin wrote, “Most things may never happen: this one will”—but you can admit that you think your life “is built on nothing,” as Loretta’s father eventually does. As for Loretta, if she ditches her fiancé for his brother, things will be awkward. But nobody is going to die. There’s nothing here that years of family dinners and the occasional fight cannot ameliorate, if given the time and space to do so.
One reason that “Moonstruck” celebrates the family over the romantic couple—it ends not with a wedding but with a toast “to family”—is because family relationships are fixed in this way. Marriage is a relationship of choice; family is not. Your brother is always your brother, even if you hate him. You can renounce your family, often for good reasons, but you can’t change the fact of the relationship, or how, in being a member of a family, you assume a kind of doubleness among people who have known you for a long time, which is part of what makes trying to be somebody else appealing. Sometimes these games can even teach you something. To her family, her employers, and Johnny, Loretta positions herself as everybody’s mother, but when she meets Ronny she drops the pose; she’s lost, she’s upset, she’s dying inside, and, after the bad luck of her first marriage, she thinks that she’s cursed to be unhappy. She doesn’t dress up or dye the gray in her hair, because she feels resigned to be “who she is”—a widow living a quiet life.
But even being doomed is a comforting fiction, a substitute of a false self for a real one. Ronny offers Loretta the possibility of a life that’s painful but really lived, not simply endured. When Loretta insists that she can choose what she wants, Ronny replies, “Love don’t make things nice—it ruins everything, it breaks your heart. . . . We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!” Loretta is right that she can choose, but she’s wrong that choosing Ronny would mean ruining everything. Ruining everything would be marrying Johnny. You can try to will yourself into the life you think appropriate. You can tell yourself that you won’t crack. But you could also flip over the table and see what happens.
If I look for companions to “Moonstruck,” I find myself thinking mostly of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, particularly “As You Like It,” with its elaborate and exaggerated role-play, complex familial relationships, and absolutely ridiculous ending, in which the barely glimpsed villain of the story, hot in pursuit of our heroes, has a conversation—offstage—with a hermit, then immediately converts to religious life, dropping all worldly concerns. The charm of this ending is its suggestion that, for any work of fiction to feel like life, it must admit that some things simply happen. “Love,” as one character reminds another, “is merely a madness.”
“Moonstruck” shares that spirit. It’s a comedy, but it’s deeply obsessed with death, to the point that it opens in a funeral parlor. It’s a romance, but, instead of trying to build up its central couple, it takes their sudden and total attraction to one another as an act of God. Nobody in the movie acts reasonably, or even normally. And yet it feels completely true to people as they are: ridiculous and passionate, in search of answers and solutions, and taking what they can get, which is usually better than what they thought they wanted. As the film knows, most of the things in life that matter aren’t chosen. But sometimes we at least get to love the wrong people, who might just be the right people after all.