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CRITIC AT LARGE

A 'Moonstruck' Celebration of Family Life

January 16, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

"Family film" used to suggest an insufferably wholesome dish from which all the vital juices had been boiled, like a piece of chicken for someone on a low-flavor diet. Daddy knew best, Mummy adored and even the kids' mischief was wholesome.

The prying-open of the screen in the '60s and beyond yielded a new kind of family film in which Daddy was an obsessive tyrant ("The Great Santini"), Mumsie was a clinical horror ("Ordinary People") and Daddy was an ineffectual wimp (same film), and/or the kiddies were scampering toward perdition as fast as their adult vices would carry them (innumerable titles).

The family as the essential unit of society began to look less like a steady rock in the sea than a disintegrating raft in white water, although there were glimmers of hope. The Santini family could at last understand and accept what made Daddy fly; and there was in the end some sense that Tim Hutton and Donald Sutherland would move out from under Mary Tyler Moore's deep disturbances and be really ordinary once more.

Although nothing is certain in Hollywood's charged and competitive corridors, it has become possible to think that the idea of the family, imperfect as any given family may be, has found a new currency.

Touchstone's "Three Men and a Baby" continues to expand its fortune at the box office, the kindest hint of all that audiences like what it is saying. The film's family structure is unorthodox, to say the minimum, and it is much more a hymn to parenthood than to husbandhood or wifehood. But it does declare that baby-sitting is an improvement on the one-night stand.

The Norman Jewison-John Patrick Shanley "Moonstruck" is very possibly the most cheerfully commercial celebration of family life since "You Can't Take It With You," with both films subheaded "No, but You Can Make a Proper Shambles of It While You're Here."

Comparisons run out very quickly, but one of them, distinctly, is that "You Can't Take It With You" started life as a play by the incomparable George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and John Patrick Shanley is a playwright who in "Moonstruck" does not let you forget it.

It is part of the pleasure of "Moonstruck" that characters have entrances and exits; scenes are shaped so as to have beginnings, middles and ends. You can almost see the wings at each side of the imaginary proscenium.

After a few decades of what could be described as the Jackson Pollock school of movie making--overlapped and unfathomable sound, quick cuts, blurry pans, wobbling images and half-formed ideas and characterizations--it is peculiarly enchanting to be in the determinist surroundings of "Moonstruck," in which everyone knew ahead of time what was intended and how to go about it.

The gestural school of film making has its own high usefulness; it will give you life in its raw confusions and half-comprehended ambiguities. But Jewison, who has always been a straight-ahead storyteller, has also always wanted the stories to carry meaning if not messages, thus his examinations of prejudice in films as different as "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming."

The possibility of fusing entertainment and content has obviously drawn him to the theater for his recent texts ("Agnes of God" and "A Soldier's Story") and now to Shanley.

Shanley's ear for dialogue is as precise as a tuning fork. There are authors whose dialogue reads wonderfully (John O'Hara, Elmore Leonard and Ross Thomas leap to mind) although it is not always certain that the printed speech could be said quite as well as it reads.

But what Stanley causes Cher, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Gardenia, Olympia Dukakis and that whole fine cast to say sounds as if it had not been written at all but had flowed, tart but true, straight from the characters' souls.

Even so, it is less how the characters speak than what they are about that gives "Moonstruck" its most potent appeal. In its comical way, it really is a celebration of the family and its preferability to whatever the other available arrangements are.

In common with most outstanding comedy, "Moonstruck" has a dark side, which lurks like shoals in a river or a riptide at the beach. Olympia Dukakis has been rightly praised for her performance as Cher's mother, but let it be noted that it is a beautifully written part and a character conceived in great wisdom and insight.

The most elusive element in film making is tone control, avoiding those mood-shattering, illusion-fracturing lurches from fantasy to reality, farce to tragedy. The control represented by Shanley's script and Jewison's sensitive handling of his players is nowhere better revealed than in Dukakis' conversations with John Mahoney as a burnt-out academic who is chasing pretty co-eds and lost hopes. Their ships pause in the night, but only to send bittersweet and useful signals across the water.

The film's wisdom is worn lightly, carried as unobtrusively as the carefully calculated comic inventions. But nobody said a comedy couldn't be wise, and nobody said a family film couldn't be grown-up and flavorful, and still cheerful.

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