Norman Jewison’s 1987 Academy Award-winning romantic comedy Moonstruck is about many things. Themes of love, family, Italian-Americanism, infidelity, and even outright absurdity come into the mix, making the film as multifaceted as it is hilarious and heartwarming. But what really sets the film apart from its contemporary offerings is its obsession with the opera, specifically Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. It is this production that lead romantic protagonists Ronny (Nicolas Cage) and Loretta (Cher) see on their date, but it also surrounds the rest of the film. The opera is an interesting marriage between two mediums that aspire to mirror each other more and more throughout the film’s runtime.
Moonstruck follows Loretta Castorini, a thirty-seven-year-old widow who has recently became engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Johnny Camarreri (Danny Aiello). Immediately after their engagement, Johnny leaves to visit his dying mother in Sicily and asks Loretta of one wish: to contact his estranged brother and invite him to their wedding. Loretta returns home to tell her father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) and mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) about the news, though they remain reluctant due to their own marriage being held together by a string.
The next day, Loretta visits the bakery where Ronny works. This is the viewer’s first introduction to Nicolas Cage and the film’s first foray into an operatic, melodramatic nature. Ronny’s character is a prime example of this, giving an almost outrageous monologue about why he and his brother Johnny haven’t spoken in a colorful way that only Cage could pull off. He reveals his wooden left hand, explaining to Loretta that five years prior Johnny had come in to order some bread. While making his brother’s order, Ronny accidentally caught his hand in the slicer, mutilating it to the point that – according to Ronny’s side of things – his fiancé left him for another man. Loretta points out that what happened wasn’t Johnny’s fault and was merely a case of bad luck, something she is familiar with herself. In an operatic – and classically Nic Cage – freakout, Ronny claims he doesn’t care, crying, “I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride! You want me to take my heartbreak, put it away, and forget?”
In an attempt to calm him down, Loretta accompanies Ronny back to his upstairs apartment, cooking a meal for him. She tries to relate his problems to hers, telling him about how her first marriage ended when her husband was hit by a bus. Loretta explains that she believes Ronny is a wolf who chewed off his own “foot” to escape the trap of a bad relationship. He hasn’t been with another woman since because he is aware of the wolf inside him that was strong enough to maim itself and is afraid of what it will do next. Ronny gets defensive, accusing Loretta of marrying Johnny only for stability; she’s growing older and hasn’t had the opportunity to have a child, something Johnny could give that to her. “A bride without a head!” Ronny yells at Loretta. “A wolf without a foot!” she yells back. Enraged, Ronny knocks the kitchen table over, then embraces Loretta in a passionate kiss. He picks her up and carries her to his bed in about as over-the-top as a scene could get – all while a poster for a production of La bohème graces the wall behind them.
This impulsive act leads Loretta to immediately regret her decision the next morning. Ronny, however, declares he is in love with her. He realizes it could never work, since she is determined to marry his brother, but he begs for one more night with her in which they experience something equally as important to him: the opera. Loretta ultimately agrees, if anything just to appease Ronny’s one last wish. She meets him later that night at the Metropolitan Opera (whose facade had made an as-of-yet unclear appearance in the film’s title credits) for a production of… La bohème.
This scene proves important not just for Ronny and Loretta, but for the film itself. As she is moved by the production, something overcomes Loretta. It seems to be an understanding of sorts, a deep love and passion that fills an empty void. It is the experience of a cultural event, yes, but it is also Ronny himself. What opera is for Ronny, a life-consuming phenomenon that simultaneously helps him forget and express his troubles, Ronny is for Loretta. This dramatic, passionate, and often-ridiculous artform molds itself with this dramatic, passionate, and often-ridiculous young man.
From here on out, Loretta and her parents are stricken with somewhat operatic problems. Loretta is now in love with her fiancé’s brother. She catches her father, Cosmo, with another woman (Anita Gillette) at the very same event. And her mother Rose, aware of Cosmo’s infidelities, spends a dinner with an out-of-luck college professor (John Mahoney), who himself has dramatically struck out on a date with his own student. Not only do problems for the central characters all arise at this point, but even Puccini’s music is integrated with composer Dick Hyman’s score.
Jewison integrates the themes of opera into Moonstruck in a surprising yet un-forceful way. In fact, the two mesh together evenly, almost mirroring the chance encounter of Ronny and Loretta. Much like the plot of La bohème as well as other productions, not everything that happens is necessarily realistic. Moonstruck ends rather abruptly yet happily, which is part of its humor and charm. We as viewers aren’t supposed to question it, but enjoy it in all of its absurdity. The same could be said for Ronny and Loretta’s meeting. They can’t ask why it happened, especially with all their bad luck. Rather, they must enjoy it for what it is.