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Moonstruck and the romantic comedy

18 Aug

I love Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987). I don’t care who knows it. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over and never get sick of it. Why? Because, it’s happy. That’s the simple answer. It puts me in a good mood and gives me hope. Yes. That might sound cheesy but I honestly don’t care if it does.  Romantic Comedies have been around since the late 1950s/early 1960s, probably most famously characterized by Doris Day’s films of choice (with the exception of Midnight Lace):  Send Me No Flowers, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back.  All Doris Day romanic comedy classics. It’s also worthy to note the romantic comedy as a genre began to popularize in the 1950s, after World War II ended and  men had entered back into women’s lives as a constant, and into the work force to replace them.  In most Doris Day comedies, she starts out as a career woman but finds love as a married woman.  Sometimes, and usually, in the end, becoming a mother.  No.  Romantic comedies haven’t changed that much but at least by the 1980s, the women could find love but that usually (but not always) meant they could retain their jobs if that was part of their identity.  While this is true for Working Girl, it’s not for Pretty Woman (but does any prostitute want do keep her day job?).

Moonstruck was made in the heyday of romantic comedies, the 1980s, 1987 to be exact, when they were still not too stale. Yes, by the time Moonstruck came along, they were starting to fill the theaters but they were still a new enough genre for the female audience to be a bit more forgivable. Not that I believe anyone has to be forgivable about this film. And when I claim there were new enough, I’m asserting they had evolved from the 1950s and 1960s.  Not a great deal, but somewhat.  For instance, Romancing the Stone wouldn’t have been made in the 1950s or 1960s, and Working Girl would have had a much different outcome.

The premise of Moonstruck is simple.  Loretta becomes engaged to Johnny.  This will be her second marriage.  Her first husband was hit by a bus and she believes she has bad luck.  Johnny only proposes to Loretta because he thinks his mother is dying in Sicily and he will be free to be married (it doesn’t seem to matter that he lives in Brooklyn).  After the two become engaged, Johnny flies off to see his mother die and begs Loretta to invite Ronny, his estranged brother to their wedding.  Loretta goes to meet Ronny.  Sparks fly.  They fall in love and Johnny returns.  Loretta is faced with a choice:  marry a steady man who she thinks she can count on or take a chance with someone she knows is a ‘wolf’.

So what makes this film work?  The characters.  You have two characters, Ronny (Nicholas Cage) and Loretta (Cher).  Neither one is actually likable on the outside but as the narrative unfolds, we see that while they at first seem disagreeable and disillusioned with life, they are actually secretly hopeful and longing to live and be happy.  And it’s the effect they have on each other that moves the narrative forward, in spite of Loretta’s misgivings and guilt over being attracted to her future brother-in-law.  Perhaps what I love about this movie most is the speech Ronny gives Loretta when they both know they should be together but she resists.  It’s really a speech that not only exposes the underpinnings of why the romantic comedy works as a genre, but affirms to female viewers that love doesn’t work at all how they were raised to expect it.  Ronny declares:  Loretta, I love you.  Not Like they told you love is.  And I didn’t know this either.  But love don’t make things nice.  It ruins everything.  It breaks your heart.  It makes things a mess.  We aren’t here to make things perfect…. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.  This speech goes along with one of the themes of the film:  betrayal.  Loretta and Ronny betray Johnny (Danny Aiello) while Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia)  betrays Rose (Olympia Dukakis) with Mona (Anita Gillette).  Rose in turn, has the opportunity to betray Cosmo with Perry (John Mahoney).  And we learn that while some betrayals must occur in order to service true love (Ronny and Loretta), others are misguided attempts to cheat death (Cosmo and Mona).

As the characters navigate their twists and turns toward understanding themselves and love, the narrative unfolds within the framework of the safety of the family; almost all of Loretta’s interactions are with family or friends or clients who are so close they might as well be family.  We see Ronny as the opposite, estranged from his entire family, living in the building that seems more like a prison, especially the ovens where he spends his days baking bread under the bakery.  It’s Loretta’s journey to reach outside her family safety net and try for a new life that ultimately brings Ronny into her family.  The entire narrative also consistently refers to Ronny’s favorite opera, La Boheme and its story of tragedy and loss of a love that wasn’t valued when it should have been.   So we are reminded that this story can go either way, depending on whether our characters can understand the importance of love in their relationships, hence why Ronny’s speech to Loretta is so important, just after they go to the opera on their only date.  To add to the mixture, the moon is considered a key ingredient in this almost magical love story that takes place over the course of a few days.  Honestly, it feels longer since by the end of the story, all characters have made life changing decisions, but perhaps that’s what’s so profound in this film.  You never know who you are going to meet and how the will change your life.  Oh, and cover up your gray hair if you’re under 60.  It ages you unnecessarily.  A key lesson for any female.  Or male, if you want the truth…

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