The romantic comedy is an evergreen film genre, surviving decade after decade as other trends come and go. The best of them – Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… (1989) – retain the flavor of an era while channeling timeless pathos and delivering contented sighs if not tear-streaked cheeks by the time the credits roll. But beware: The rom-com queue in any streaming service can include plenty of schlock and a lot of forgettable tear-jerkers and cynical star vehicles. Yet keeping company with these paint-by-numbers cash-grabs are some exemplars of the most sublime filmmaking, and Moonstruck is among the best of these. With a stacked cast and a finely-tuned script, Norman Jewison directed not only one of the best films of 1987 but also one that continues to enchant today, its weird and original charm undiminished.

Reviewed at the time as a “madcap ethnic comedy” centered around the romances of an Italian-American family in Brooklyn, John Patrick Shanley’s Oscar-winning script follows interwoven threads of flirtations, engagements, seductions and betrayals which all manage to dovetail in a climactic kitchen table scene that improbably resolves the central love triangle. In a satisfying feat of symmetry, the film begins and ends with Johnny (Danny Aiello) on one knee, offering an engagement ring over a dinner table, but the circumstances that separate these two events are as circular and zany as the full moon that looms over all. With an Oscar-winning performance, Cher plays Loretta, a widow confronting the onset of middle age by agreeing to marry Johnny, a decent but passionless guy whose estranged brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage) proves to be the wildcard that upends everything. Versions of similar triangles are replicated in subplots throughout the movie as Loretta’s mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis, in another Oscar-winning performance) investigates the reasons for her husband’s extramarital affair with a vapid younger woman. Rose suspects that the fear of death is what drives men to romantic self-sabotage, and thus the film establishes the twin axes of its theme: love and death. It’s a story fit for an opera, a point underscored by Ronny’s obsession with Puccini and the constant presence of “La Bohème” on the soundtrack.

Nicolas Cage has by now richly earned a reputation as an actor who goes batshit gonzo in every role he takes on, but in 1987 he was just getting started (Raising Arizona came out in the same year). While Peter Gallagher was the studio’s choice for the role of Ronny, Cher insisted on working with Cage, threatening to walk off the project otherwise. If chemistry was what she wanted, her effort paid off. Cage is almost comically intense in the role of the angry younger brother who blames Johnny for the bread-slicer accident that cost him his hand and his fiancée. Now outfitted with a wooden hand, Ronny toils in the bowels of a bakery, shoving bread into an inferno and stewing with grievance. Cage, lean and sweaty and smoldering with matinée idol sex appeal, is operatic in his fury, but Cher’s unflappable reserve works as his perfect foil. At the moment that their romantic connection is forged, Cage not only sweeps everything off the kitchen table in a shattering mess, he actually hurls the table across the kitchen and then, hilariously, pauses a moment to rake his fingers through his hair before planting a kiss on Loretta that turns both their lives inside-out.

It’s the kind of over-the-top scene that makes us want to live these characters’ lives, full of passion and abandon, heedless of consequence. The mismatch in age and temperament between Loretta and Ronny is never belabored but serves to hint at the capricious power of the full moon that hangs over the city “like a big pizza pie,” as Dean Martin croons over the opening credits. Loretta’s age and experience temper Ronny’s fiery antics, and the two characters complement one another as if free will had little to do with their attraction. Not many actors could hold their own against the gale force of Cage’s maximal theatrics, but Cher does so with a quiet grace and dignity that grounds the live wire of their unexpected bond. Her charisma is palpable even when all she’s doing is watching, with smoky eyes, the madness going on around her. This role unfortunately amounted to Cher’s peak as an actor. She would go on to resurrect a successful career as a pop star, along with parts in smaller productions, but she never returned to a leading role in a major film.

The final scene, in which nearly all the principal characters convene around a small kitchen table, is a masterpiece of build-up and pay-off. Director Norman Jewison has said that it was the single most challenging scene he’s ever filmed, owing to the exhaustion of the actors and the complexity of the blocking and story beats. A cascade of misunderstandings and reversals results in Loretta hurling her engagement ring at Johnny, who picks it up, only to be confronted by Ronny, who wants the ring to give to Loretta himself. It’s a perfectly rendered moment, bookending the journey of that engagement ring from first scene to last, with grace notes for the story arcs of all the minor characters.

The studio that produced Moonstruck, MGM, didn’t really understand what the movie was. All the opera and dinner scenes made it feel like an arthouse film, and Cher and Cage weren’t yet bankable stars. The studio instead put their promotional muscle behind Overboard, a goofy comedy with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell that tanked at the box office. But Moonstruck, in all its weirdness and charm, struck a chord with audiences, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and inspiring a renaissance in romantic comedies for the next decade. Revisiting the film more than thirty years later, its charm is as clear and bright as the moon in the sky.

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