The stunning new domestic drama "Shoot the Moon," explores a familiar subject--the failure of an upper middle-class marriage--with uncommon acuity. In outline, one confronts the simplest of stories, but screenwriter Bo Goldman and director Alan Parker have elaborated it with an overwhelming accumulation of primal scenes. The ramifications can't be anticipated or kept on the screen at a safe distance. A prodigious small-scale achievement, "Shoot the Moon" is destined to churn up basic emotions, provoke controversy and influence the way American filmmakers perceive marriage for the next generation or more.
Goldman's compelling screenplay is calculated to draw one further and further inside the emotional turmoil created by a marital crisis. It depicts the embittered aftermath of a breakup which separates George Dunlap (Albert Finney, reborn as a forceful screen actor), a free-lance writer evidently on the verge of success and security, from his wife Faith (Diane Keaton, demonstrating impressive new range and authority as a dramatic actress), their four daughters (ages 6 to 13) and a beautiful but intimidating sanctuary of a house nestled in a secluded valley in Marin County, Calif.
The Dunlaps are introduced on the brink of a blowup. The domestic atmosphere crackles as they prepare to attend a formal literary banquet in San Francisco--a book-awards ceremony that brings George a prize for nonfiction, a hollow accolade under the circumstances. A brooding mask of unhappiness at first sight, George dials his mistress indiscreetly for a consoling word, and their brief conversation is overheard by the oldest Dunlap girl, Sherry (Dana Hill, an inspired newcomer who contributes one of the greatest adolescent performances ever filmed). Passing her alienated father moments later, Sherry inquires with exaggerated casualness, "You off the phone? You better hurry. Mom looks terrific." See MOON, D3, Col. 1 MOON, From D1
Goldman has an uncanny facility for suggestive comic dialogue--casual remarks which betray simmering hostility. Faith, surrounded by the three younger girls (Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold and Tina Yothers, who function as a rowdy, chatterbox juvenile chorus and comedy team throughout the movie), has been trying to get dressed in time for the banquet. When George enters their bedroom and gruffly attempts a compliment, "You look really pretty," Faith bristles: "You seem surprised."
The antagonism intensifies beneath the festive surface of the evening, as the Dunlaps barely contrive to present a compatible image to outsiders on an occasion of apparent triumph. Watching the awards ceremony at home on television, the girls go into hysterics when George wins, singles out Faith for praise in his acceptance speech and the two exchange an ominously awkward victory kiss on camera. The parents have not fooled each other, however, and the showdown they've been spoiling for occurs the next morning, sparked by George's outburst at a trivial annoyance--his inability to find a sharpened pencil. When he bellows that he wants out, Faith demands that he get out. Moreover, she's already facilitated his getaway in an infuriating fashion by packing his bag for him.
Having strained their 15-year-old marriage to the breaking point the Dunlaps find it beyond their power to sustain a clean break. They drift groggily toward some amicable state of separation expected of civilized modern couples, but unresolved feelings and unsettled scores continue to bedevil them.
Perhaps they've had it with each other, but they haven't begun to get over each other, and there's still so much of their severed union embodied in the personalities of those four lively daughters and that comfortable home that one doubts if a satisfying compromise will ever be in the cards.
The title refers to a last-ditch gambit in the card game Hearts, by which a sure loser may snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by collecting all the "bad" cards. After jeopardizing his position in the family, George attempts to recoup by going for broke impulsively.
Sherry is the pivotal dramatic character in the script. By the time we meet George and Faith, their estrangement is so far advanced that they don't have much incentive left to go at each other. They seem too exhausted by years of silent demands and festering resentments. In fact, Faith responds to George's departure by spending several days in bed, recovering as it were from an extended hangover. Keaton plays perhaps her greatest single scene--it's bound to become a classic--lolling in the bathtub at the end of her hibernation (an indulgence that leaves Sherry all too eager to fill the power vacuum at home). Faith begins crooning the lyrics of a Beatles song--"If I Fell"--to herself, and each word seems to evoke a fresh, spontaneous note of regret and sorrow from Keaton.
Sherry possesses plenty of incentive for picking a fight, so George and Faith tend to fight it out with their daughter as the proxy antagonist. It's apparent that Sherry's initial grudge against her father enjoys the tacit approval of her mother. Enraged by Sherry's continuing rejection of his birthday present, a portable typewriter, and Faith's inclination to humor her, George precipitates an astonishing and terrifying outburst of domestic violence, breaking into the house, locking his wife out and pursuing his daughter into her bedroom, where they finally have it out with a fury that seems to leave the theater vibrating.
The upshot of this staggering sequence is that in the wake of their battle, father and daughter draw closer again, and it appears as if this painfully achieved reconciliation might even lead to a workable truce between the estranged parents. Sherry's concern shifts to the nature of her mother's romantic loyalties. Faith has been drawn into a love affair with an easygoing young contractor, Frank (Peter Weller), who turned up one afternoon to start work on the tennis court she and George had ordered months before. Nevertheless, Sherry also knows that her parents spent a night together following a chance encounter in a Santa Rosa restaurant. Now she wants to know what gives as far as mom is concerned? What is the new domestic order? Frank? Dad? Frank and Dad?
On the night of a party celebrating the completion of the tennis court, Sherry runs away and ends up at the beach house of George's girlfriend, Sandy (Karen Allen), where George finds her and finally gives her the precious typewriter. When he drives her back home, there's reason to believe that healing processes might have begun closing the wounds opened in the Dunlap family. And that, Goldman and Parker insist with a devastating rhetorical finale, is just where you'd be dead wrong, because some emotional wounds do not respond to treatment.
There are dubious, shortchanged aspects to the material. I wish George's professional life had received more documentation, and while Finney brings a seething psychological conviction to his role, I wish he looked less of a wreck. The scene of George and Faith in the restaurant shifts the tone of the movie suddenly. It seems an exaggerated comic interlude, sharply out of key with the offhand comic realism that distinguishes Goldman at his most assured and authentic. However, the denouement will remain the critical problem area, either accepted as a brilliant closing or rejected as an enigmatic excess.
At any rate, "Shoot the Moon" is an esthetic revelation on several scores, notably the performances of Diane Keaton and Dana Hill and the direction of Alan Parker ("Bugsy Malone," "Midnight Express," "Fame"). The big suprise is that a charming flibbertigibbet like Keaton makes such a genuine impression as a battle-scarred wife and mother.
"Shoot the Moon" leaves you with more than fresh respect for Parker and Keaton. It also suggests that American family life has just begun to be depicted with true candor and sensitivity on the contemporary screen.