"Moonstruck" is a great big beautiful valentine of a movie, an intoxicating romantic comedy set beneath the biggest, brightest Christmas moon you ever saw. It's a monster moon, a Moby Dick of a moon, whose radiance fills the winter sky and every cranny of this joyous love story.
Over the twinkling New York skyline, on the light-strung streets of Little Italy, through the bedroom window of the family Castorini, the moonglow falls. And all within are variously illumined by what grandfather Castorini greets as "la bella luna," but none quite so markedly as dowdy Loretta Castorini, a widowed bookkeeper who becomes an Italian American Cinderella when she falls in love with her fiance''s brother (Nicolas Cage).
That other heavenly body Cher plays Loretta, a repressed 37-year-old who is determined to marry sensibly, if not well. Her fiance' is the good-natured nebbish Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), who soon flies off to visit his sick mother in Sicily, leaving Loretta to plan the wedding. She issues a personal invitation to his estranged brother Ronny, and in the process, Ronny and Loretta fall head over heels into bed.
"I don't care. I don't care. I don't care," she surrenders, but she regrets the affair with the sunrise. He promises to take their secret to his grave if only she will grant him one wish, if only she will be his date for a performance of "La Bohe`me." When she agrees, an impassioned aria from the Puccini opera swells the air with the sound of love itself, the ideal accompaniment to the pair's grandly comic chemistry.
They're an irresistibly offbeat couple -- Cage playing on the edge, where he likes it; Cher creating a fairy-tale realist, captivating yet cautious. He looks like the bastard son of Mama Celeste and Wile E. Coyote, and she, as the camera romances her Mediterranean features, is Mona Lisa in heavy mascara. They're backed by an equally quirky cast of marvelous supporting players -- especially Olympia Dukakis, whose role as Loretta's world-weary mother Rose is expected to get Oscar's attention.
Though the story shapes itself around Loretta and Ronny, "Moonstruck" is an ensemble piece about the entire Castorini family -- three generations and five fuzzy dogs all under one roof -- and how Rose holds them together. Her plumber husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is having a midlife affair, but Rose remains faithful even in the face of a flirtation with a recently jilted college professor (John Mahoney). The moon has had its way with them all by the time they gather in the kitchen for an intricate finale over bowls of steaming oatmeal.
The atmosphere is as rich and piquant as a taste of spumoni, and the spirit is as flamboyantly italiano as that of "Prizzi's Honor." There's something of the filmmaking Taviani brothers' Tuscan fables here amid the echoes of Woody Allen's Manhattan comedies. Ronny has the soul of a wolf; that Loretta recognizes. And she's all got up for the occasion in her wine-red gown and ruby slippers -- Little Red Riding Hood in Oz, kicking a can with her jeweled pointy toes.
Norman Jewison, whose last movie was "Agnes of God," creates his comic masterpiece with this infectious ethnic romance. Jewison is a journeyman director, something of a cultural anthropologist and a social Samaritan. "A Soldier's Story," "In the Heat of the Night" and even "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" attest to that. He's made classics like "The Cincinnati Kid" and comedies like "Best Friends," but who could have imagined he had this reach -- that he could catch moonbeams?
Jewison worked from a stellar script by John Patrick Shanley, a writer of Off-Broadway plays. He writes in the language of his native New York, the nasal cadences of plumbers and cab drivers, which led Jewison to dub him "the Bard of the Bronx." Uptown sentiments seem all the more touching when spoken by plain folks. In his big speech, a sort of aria, Ronny tries to persuade Loretta to break up with Johnny: "Love don't make things nice. It ruins your life. It ain't perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. We're here to love the wrong people and break our hearts."
One day Ronny and Loretta might very well face the same problems that test her parents. But even that will pass, the story says, for love, like the moon, has many phases.
Moonstruck, at area theaters, is rated PG for sexual innuendo.