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MOONSTRUCK

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Norman Jewison

Written by John Patrick Shanley

With Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, and Danny Aiello.

Moonstruck, Norman Jewison's pleasant, warmhearted movie, draws upon two dramatic traditions--the celebration of liberated passion (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Smiles of a Summer Night, Cousin, Cousine) and ethnic domestic comedy-drama. The setting is Coppola-Scorsese country--Brooklyn's Italian-American community--but the mood is lighter and sweeter, untainted by urban angst and Catholic guilt. Jewison and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley have constructed their film from familiar elements, but the combination of themes and tones makes Moonstruck seem fresher than it really is--l'amour fou seasoned with garlic and oregano.

Cher stars as Loretta Castorini, a no-nonsense widow approaching 40 who believes her first marriage--held at City Hall, her father absent--was jinxed. She unenthusiastically agrees to marry Johnny (Danny Aiello), an uninspiring, devoted mama's boy who proposes to her before leaving for Sicily to be at the bedside of his dying mother. Loretta--who admits to her mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), that she doesn't love Johnny--is left to make the wedding plans and, at her fiance's request, try to patch up the bad blood between him and his younger brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage).

Ronny turns out to be Loretta's counterpart; his first love went sour, and ever since he's been repressing emotion. (A workaholic baker, the only passion he allows himself is grand opera.) Quickly and irresistibly they become lovers, and spend a dreamy evening together, dressed to the nines, at a Met performance of La Boheme. But they are afraid to confront the consequences of their mutual attraction, especially facing hot-tempered Johnny when he returns from Sicily. In a subplot, Loretta's parents also experience romantic difficulties. Her father is having a secret affair, and her embittered mother, who senses something's going on, struggles to cope with the problem. It's hardly spoiling the movie to reveal that all of these emotional knots are happily untied by the sunny fade-out.

In the crude hands of, say, Dom DeLuise and Kaye Ballard, Moonstruck would be unendurably vulgar--screaming, flailing hands, orgies of eating, and oceans of ethnic sentimentality--but Jewison's direction is restrained. Jewison, Shanley (a playwright with a gift for surprising dialogue), British cinematographer David Watkin (whose colorful images reflect a paint-box Manhattan), and a strong cast infuse rather threadbare material with an unexpected charm. One could debate whether Moonstruck really needed to be made--it's forgettable, reactionary fluff--but I can't imagine anybody doing it more skillfully.

The film's major drawing card is Cher's performance. A Newsweek cover story assured readers that Moonstruck is destined, once and forever, to establish her as an actress of importance. I'm not sure I agree, but certainly she's come a long way since her days of television stardom, when she was a media joke, best known for her navel, her foghorn singing voice, and her marriage to a wimp. In Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Silkwood, her first serious movie roles, Cher's unpolished directness surprised moviegoers who couldn't imagine her without Sonny and sequins. She offered refreshing relief from heavy-handed, scenery-munching costars, like simpering Sandy Dennis and the dreaded Streep.

Moonstruck proves that Cher easily has enough skill and presence to carry a movie. But the role is carefully designed to cushion her. For the film's first half, she's supposed to be dowdy--drab clothes; unstyled, gray-streaked hair. Then, in a Cinderella turnabout, she falls for Ronny and is transformed--elegant hairdo and knockout evening gown. (Several shots of the renovated Loretta seen through a confessional grille are as breathtaking as Steichen's classic portraits of Gloria Swanson through lace.) I don't think her transformation from cranky ugly duckling to passionate swan is a performance of enormous inspiration or skill--more like a shrewdly engineered vehicle to show off how much Cher has grown since her bad old television days.

There is, however, a great performance by Dukakis as Rose, Loretta's neglected mother. With her lined, handsome face, Dukakis plays quietly, subverting all our expectations about how mothers in Italian comedies are supposed to behave. There's a delicacy to her work here that was not evident in her previous stage and screen appearances. The scene where Rose, dining alone, is "picked up" by a womanizing, younger NYU professor (the Arthur Hill-ish John Mahoney) is sensitively written and beautifully played. A funny, affecting encounter between two people from wholly different worlds, it stands apart from the rest of the film and suggests that Shanley is capable of more imaginative work than he's allowed within the conventional, sitcom limitations of Moonstruck.

The rest of the cast makes solid contributions. Cage, whose doltish, over-the-top performances in Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona seemed miscalculated, is well-cast as Ronny. The role is fairly small, so Cage's manic energy doesn't overwhelm the picture--for once, it's appropriate. The very fact that Ronny is too much--too intense, too operatic in his emotions--is what makes him appealing to Loretta and to us. I think some credit for Cage's fine work here is due to Jewison's deft direction. He also manages to extract refined performances from overseasoned prosciutti like Aiello, Vincent Gardenia, and Julie Bovasso. Feodor Chaliapin has a few telling scenes as the ancient Castorini paterfamilias. (It's a nice touch casting Chaliapin, son of the great Russian opera star, in this opera-loving movie.) Anita Gillette does well with the skimpy role of Gardenia's girlfriend, though personally I found it rather alarming to discover that the pert Broadway musical ingenue (Mr. President, All American) of my adolescence has become a matronly butterball.

It's been so long since Jewison has made a passable movie that it's hard to remember he was responsible for satisfying entertainments like The Cincinnati Kid and Fiddler on the Roof. Making Moonstruck seems to have recharged his creative batteries--appropriately so, since the film is about disillusioned men and unfulfilled women, sure that their time has passed, reawakening to feeling and passion. Like Cousin, Cousine, Moonstruck is a fairy tale for the middle-aged, extending the promise that the romance and erotic intensity of youth can be recaptured later in life. That's a bracing and credible theme, though the passionate renaissance is seldom achieved as painlessly as in this picture.

Charmingly executed and hopeful, Moonstruck is a spun-sugar movie. It doesn't nourish the mind, but for those who aren't terribly demanding about their movie fare, it's a sweet treat.

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