Picks and Pans Review: Moonstruck

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

This movie sneaks up on you. Settle into your seat and up pops Cher, dressed down and tawkin' like dis as a dowdy Italian widow in Brooklyn. You might fear you're in for one of those cloying ethnic farces. Don't fret. There's a real comic edge to the original screenplay by off-Broadway playwright John Patrick Shanley; his dialogue hums with the offbeat, raucous rhythms of family life. Okay, the plot is fairly basic: Cher agrees to marry a well-off mama's boy (Danny Aiello) she doesn't love, then falls hard for her intended's hot-blooded kid brother, an opera-loving baker (Nicolas Cage) who has lost a hand in a bread slicer. But the characters are so well drawn and full of mischievous surprise that, whoosh, you're hooked. Director Norman (Agnes of God) Jewison gives the film, his deftest work in years, an irresistible romantic sheen. Cher even gets to play Cinderella. Caught up in Cage's passion for her and the opera, she dolls up for a night of La Bohème at the Met. She's a wow but never strays out of character; there's a likable bluntness about her and about the movie as well. To her credit, Cher—a star to her shin bones—stays resolutely part of a superb ensemble of actors. Vincent (Little Shop of Horrors) Gardenia as Cher's philandering father and John (Suspect) Mahoney as a skirt-chasing professor are particularly fine, both trying to recapture the thrill of first love despite advancing age. Still, it's stage actress Olympia Dukakis who steals the show as Cher's put-upon mom. The two match up perfectly in looks and no-bull temperament. Spying her aged father (Feodor Chaliapin) feeding his dogs from her table, Dukakis rages: "Give those dogs any more of my food, old man, and I'll kick you till you're dead." It's a tribute to Dukakis' performance—and the film's feeling for family relationships—that her voice can ring simultaneously with anger and affection. Dukakis' brief flirtation with Mahoney in a local restaurant, in an effort to figure out why men cheat, results in a jewel of a scene—sharply funny and resonant. Moonstruck is full of such magic moments. It's an inspired movie lark, the kind you take to heart and find yourself thinking back on later. When you do, you'll smile. (PG)

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