In hearts, points count against you. The idea, roughly the opposite of bridge, is to avoid taking tricks, because you get one point each for hearts, and 13 points for the queen of spades.
But there's another way to win, which is to "shoot the moon," the ploy from which Alan Parker's film takes its name. If you take all the bad cards, the 26 points that ought to be against you are counted, instead, against each of the other players. You have to take all, though: If you get the queen and all hearts but, say, the deuce, you have 25 points against you. Going for everything bad is risky, but if you're going to end up with a lot of points anyway, it's often worth a try.
In the movie, Albert Finney plays a man who tries this approach on his family life. Eaten up by guilt and fury because of his own extramarital affair, he escalates his errant behavior -- beating a child, destroying household property -- until it's so completely outrageous that he seems to feel entitled to; and one is left feeling that the wife, too, who is played by Diane Keaton, must finally condede.
There's a great deal of modern psychological validity in this ploy of I'm-so-hopeless- that-you-have-to-feel-sorry-for-me, as well as in many of the details of this film, which has struck such a strong note of emotional recognition in audiences. There is no question here of right and wrong in the deterioration of the marriage, which we first see at the point where jokes are received in silence and compliments taken as insults. The contest, instead, is to determine who is more pitiful.
It all takes place in an empty landscape, emotional and otherwise. The family lives in a cluttered farmhouse that simulates generations of bustling harmony but is, in fact, the chic digs appropriate to the husband's profession of popular novelist. The couple are not bound by love, but by a mutual intolerance that won't let them be happy together or apart. Their other partners are chosen for convenience, rather than any individual characteristic -- the wife's lover is someone who happens to ring the doorbell when she's feeling blue; the husband's mistress' idea of love is to reassure him fondly that she finds him filling her needs, but "If you don't come through, I'll find somebody else."
From the expensively outfitted "old- fashioned" kitchen to the mistress' first greeting of the children ("Do I pass?"), everything rings true. It is, carried to its logical extension, an accurate and even artistic reflection of the kind of family situation even small children recognize and fear these days. And yet there's no moral core to the film -- no attempt to say why such shallow impulses produce so much destruction, or to weigh whether it might have been avoided.
The non-judgmental state, in which the wrecking of a family is treated like a natural disaster for which there is no human responsibity or possiblity of control, is also true to the spirit of the society the film depicts. But it makes the film, like the marriage itself, seem irritatingly thoughtless.
SHOOT THE MOON -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, K-B Cerberus, NTI Tysons Center, Old Town, Roth's Seven Locks, Springfield Mall, Tenley Circle, Wheaton Plaza. photo: Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in a scene from "Shoot the Moon."