John Patrick Shanley is such a generous writer. He loves his characters, and he wants to immerse us in their world. While at first glance they may seem petty, foolish, unreasonable, as we get to know them better we realize that they’re driven by the same desires, the same fears, as the rest of us. They may be flawed, but so is the rest of humanity.
Moonstruck is a richly detailed comedy about a woman approaching middle age, Loretta, who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother, Ronny. The premise is familiar, but Shanley takes us beyond the predictable complications of romantic comedy. He brings us into Loretta’s home to meet her mother and father, who have their own marital complications. We meet her grandfather, who walks his pack of dogs and worries that his family is unhappy. We sit down with everyone at the dinner table, where the in-laws tell stories about early courtship. Rather than just focussing on Loretta and Ronny, Shanley looks at the troubled relationships of the people around them. In most romantic comedies we take it for granted that the couple is in love, and the movie is about the hurdles they have to jump to be together. Moonstruck asks what love is, and the answer isn’t simple.
Nothing is simple in Moonstruck, least of all the families. Loretta’s fiancé Johnny is a mama’s boy, flying off to Italy to visit the woman who gave birth to him one last time. Loretta’s love for her father is tempered by the fact that he refused to give her away when she was first married. Ronny bears a burning grudge against his brother, believing that it’s Johnny’s fault he was maimed. The film shows how all these people are products of the relationships they have with their parents, their siblings, their children, both for good and for bad. In fact, the good and bad are inseparable. Loretta and Ronny can’t just ride off into the sunset together because they’re completely tangled in the complicated web that families weave.
Many of these people are driven by desire. The characters are either burning with it, or they’ve been burned by it. Loretta’s father, Cosmo, woos his mistress, trying to pretend he’s a young man again. His wife, Rose, lies in bed, frustrated that her husband won’t touch her. A college professor dates a string of young students, trying to rekindle his interest in life. And Loretta, who hasn’t been with a man since she was widowed, suddenly finds herself throwing caution to the wind and letting Ronny sweep her off her feet.
But desire is tempered by awareness of death. As he walks into the kitchen, Loretta’s father echoes Vicki Carr singing, “Or I will die….” The grandfather meets his ancient friends in a cemetery where they stand together over a grave. Ronny and Loretta go to the Met to see La Boheme, a story about lovers separated by death. As these people eat and drink, argue and make love, mortality is always standing in the background. When Loretta’s father criticizes her engagement ring, she responds by telling him it’s temporary. He shouts back at her, “Everything is temporary!”
Director Norman Jewison handles the intricate script with admirable assurance, breathing life into the people that Shanley has created. Jewison has an impressive grasp of the craft of filmmaking, but he’s more than just a craftsman. At his best he imbues his work with a vibrant energy and an exhilarating expansiveness that can carry you away. In Moonstruck the warmth of his images makes palpable Shanley’s love for his characters. And he makes New York glitter. Much of the film is shot on location, and the characters seem to really belong on these streets. Jewison took great pains to capture the community that the story takes place in. As an example, the director felt it was so important to have his actors experience the heat and the smell of a real bakery that he changed the last name of Ronny’s character to fit an actual bakery that he felt was perfect for the scene. While the film is part fairy tale, this insistence on rooting it in actual experience gives it weight and texture. Jewison is lucky to have the gifted David Watkin as cinematographer. His attention to light makes the streets, the shops, the homes all feel alive. Watkin’s work with the actors is even more impressive. He doesn’t just photograph faces, he photographs feelings.
The lovers end up together, but Shanley doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. Frustrated by Loretta’s resistance, Ronny tells her, “Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything.” Shanley doesn’t believe that relationships are about looking for happy endings. Ronny goes on to say, “We are here to ruin ourselves, and to break our hearts.” And in the end, Loretta acquiesces. She accepts the messy, crazy chaos of life.
But at the end, the film doesn’t focus on the lovers. In the last scene everyone is gathered around the breakfast table, parents, siblings, in-laws, and they drink a toast to the family. In spite of all the pain, anger, guilt and shame that goes with those relationships, Shanley seems to be saying that the good outweighs the bad. He still embraces the family.