In just a couple of weeks it will be exactly 25 years since the first day of shooting began on one of the most perfect movies to come out of the post-Viet Nam-era Hollywood: Moonstruck. For its success and enduring, endearing nature credit John Patrick Shanley’s quirkily adorable screenplay full of memorable lines and people and confrontations, exceptional and lucky casting (Cher and Olympia Dukakis are earthily sublime revelations, and no one, any place, any time could be a better Ronny Cammareri than Nicolas Cage), savvy use of Dean Martin crooning “That’s Amore” and Norman Jewison’s steady don’t-get-in-the-way directing.
Mostly, though credit placeness.
Whereas, in his films, Woody Allen loves Manhattan, Shanley’s New York – Brooklyn, specifically – is love. More than just another character in the narrative, the soft-edged and warmly glowing Brooklyn of Shanley/Jewison is a place that must exist first so that its characters can exist after. It is a place, unreal in life but absolutely believable if not necessary in our hearts, where love supreme not only reigns but is operatically intense, where shadowy streets hold no menace, where superstition and religion and mortal foibles and Fate’s delicious hand-mangling irony are as thick in the air as the bakery and cooking smells we imagine are everywhere, where jerks are lovable and moral cheaters are as innocent as children – and it is a spot on Earth (some Earth, in some dream) where the moon is bigger than possible and exerts a pull that is not that of the physical world’s gravity but quite the opposite: anti-gravity, an irresistible force that moves immovable objects, like deadened hearts and desiccated relationships, and grants them life and youth and hope.
There are certain key elements that a film needs to be great – mostly, these have to do with character and motivation, action and satisfaction. A film can be great if it doesn’t have all, but most, of these elements (forming what weak-headed critics would call “flawed” films). But no film can be great without a placeness that gives every person and plot component its raison d’etre. Movies have people and plots, but what the best movies do best is create believable worlds that, empathetically, we already somehow know and recognize and crave. Placeness establishes the rules and referees the match, and only then can the games begin and follow their course. And, with a great sense of placeness – Oz, or the Corleone compound, or Xanadu – one cannot conceive of a film’s events occurring anywhere else. Every life form, movies included, needs certain conditions in which to come into being, thrive and evolve. Another place, another species. A lesser place, no life at all.
Moonstruck is a masterly bit of created placeness in a bubble of benevolence, like a glass-enclosed terrarium, a self-sufficient ecosystem unsullied by an outside world’s contaminating breath – truth grows undisturbed while reality bounces off the protecting globe.
As a P.S. to all this: What Moonstruck wants to express, at its core, is the messy, complex, intertwining, toxic yet life-giving nature of Family and families. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. When you’re together with your own blood-related or handpicked family, there could be no better place to visit, all of you, post-stuffing, than Moonstruck.