Moonstruck, Norman Jewison's wonderful, over-the-top yet always under control romantic comedy masterpiece was the toughest movie for me to leave off my top 10 movies of the 80s list. It came down to a coin toss between it and Out of Africa and Out of Africa won; but I'd have had no problems if things were reversed.

Moonstruck takes place in an idealized Brooklyn where the romantic lure of lower Manhattan is always looming across the river like an enormous theatrical background painting. A moon the size of Saturn hangs tantalizingly over the whole proceeding, driving the various inhabitants of this unlikely and gentle Sodom crazy with amore and making the older folks "look like (they're) 25 years old".

The story revolves around the romantic misadventures of the Castorini family: Rose, her husband Cosmo, his old-country father and Rose and Cosmo's 30-something daughter, the widow Loretta. Loretta is determined to marry again and marry right and to that end she's engaged to the oafish but dependable Jonny Cammareri, later she'll fall in love with his brother Ronny when Jonny is called away to Sicily to be at the bedside of his dying mother. Cosmo loves Rose but is having an extramarital affair with a younger woman. Rose loves Cosmo but is aware of his infidelity and for a few moments flirts with the idea of having an affair of her own with an aging college professor after she sees him get water thrown in his face by one of his female students he's trying to bed. Loretta knows her father is having an affair, her father knows she's being unfaithful to her fiance while he's away, grandpa believes Rose is being unfaithful even though she's not and Jonny just wants his life back after his hand was mangled in a bread slicer: "They say bread is life and I bake bread" so why does he want to kill himself? Not because he lost his hand, but because losing his hand caused his girlfriend to leave him for another man.

But the details of the various trysts are not as important as what they allow the characters to reveal about themselves and human nature in general. Jewison's film is eternally threatening to tip over into slapstick yet never actually does and the main reason for that is the glorious lines the actors have to recite throughout the film which are remarkable for their subtlety of tone, degree of insight and generosity of spirit. They are also, by turns and sometimes simultaneously, hilarious. Take Ronny's impassioned plea to a reluctant Loretta...

"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. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We're here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die."

Not exactly Hallmark card stuff, yet romantic in the truest sense of the word and undeniable to Loretta, who has known her share of heartache and attempted to compromise her way out of it to no avail. Facing a choice between the passionate if sometimes unpleasant truth of Ronny and the inauthentic (yet secure) purgatory of Jonny she caves to the truth.

The kids aren't the only ones who get choice lines either. When Rose is being prodded by the professor to indulge in some late-life candy store antics she responds, not cruelly, not sarcastically, but truthfully that she can't do it because "I know who I am." Fact is all of the characters in writer John Patrick Shanley's libretto know in their hearts exactly who they are and all are given a chance to prove it. When Cosmo the plumber gives an estimate to a couple to replace their bathroom pipes and they balk at the price he rises (semi) majestically from the floor with his full, experienced hands outstretched before him and sells the couple on the glories of copper piping and why its the only piping he'll ever use. You know in that moment that if the couple decided to save money and asked him to install bronze he'd walk out because bronze piping is not what he does.

Olympia Dukakis won an Oscar for her portrayal of Rose and deservedly so. Her Rose is alive; fearful of neither love nor death yet experienced enough to know that the ever looming specter of the latter makes the former, with all its myriad twists and turns, indispensable. Nicolas Cage has never had another role so suited to his particular talents. His Ronny is Sonny Corleone with a big heart and Cage plays him to outrageous perfection. Cher's Loretta (for which she too won an Oscar) is a living Mona Lisa who, like Leonardo's most famous work, engenders different responses from different suitors. Jonny sees an angel who'd make an appropriately demure life companion and puts her on a pedestal. Ronny looks into the depth of her eyes and sees a suffocating soul desperate to breath again. Vincent Gardenia gives Cosmo just the right blend of strength and vulnerability, wisdom and cluelessness to make him a sympathetic character, even in the light of his philandering. Also excellent are Julie Bovasso and Louis Guiss as Loretta's aunt and uncle who are given one of the great adult scenes in contemporary cinema and deliver it flawlessly.

The other uncredited characters here are the city of New York, pre-police state (rarely has the big apple being filmed more lovingly. In Moonstruck, New York is not an eat or be eaten cesspool of manipulative, greedy narcissists; its home), and the music; which sets just the right slightly off-kilter tone throughout without ever compromising events.

Moonstruck is perhaps the best romantic comedy of the past 25 years and if you haven't seen it yet, well, in the words of Loretta; "Snap out of it!"