Shoot the Moon (1982)

| January 22, 1982

It is very strange to approach Shoot the Moon in such close proximity to On Golden Pond.  The two are polar opposites, it seems.  One is about a marriage in crumbs while the other is about a union that has stood the test of time.  I would have no doubt that Norman and Ethel Thayer in the earlier film have had the same issues that plague George and Faith Dunlap in this one.  The difference is their willingness to put down the sword and find some sort of mutual ground.

For George and Faith, the mutual ground has become a battle ground and neither seems willing to negotiate.  Oddly enough, the movie never takes sides or to creates heroes or villains.  They’re both wrong, then again, they’re both right.  They’re both stubborn and self-centered, then again, they’re both good, level-headed people.  They both want the marriage to work, but they both understand that it just isn’t going to happen.  You rarely see characters that three-dimensional.  In most American films, the blame would lay almost exclusively with one side or the other, but screenwriter Bo Goldman understands that there are two sides to every story and in a divorce situation with four children involved, there’s isn’t much room for clarity.

The movie opens as George (Albert Finney), a writer, is about to be honored.  Getting ready for the ceremony, he makes a phone call to a woman with whom he has been having an affair, a call that is intercepted by his oldest daughter Sherry (Dana Hill).  Tearfully, he tells his new girlfriend that the evening will be rough without her.  Then he pulls himself together and moves into the other room to be with his family.

The phone call, in a lesser movie, would be the catalyst for all of George and Faith’s problems, but it really is just the thing that draws the kids into the realization that there are problems in their parent’s marriage.  That phone call, we suspect, is a painful moment in Sherry’s life that will breed a resentment that she will carry with her for the rest of her life.

What happened in this marriage?  Where did it fall apart?  Those questions are never really answered, nor is the bitterness between them ever really mainlined into a series of fights.  They have moments when they remember the good times, when they remember what they had together, and then they drift back apart again.  Take, for example, a moment later in the film when the couple is separating and they are packing books into boxes. They laugh as they remember a terrible French piano player that they once had to endure over dinner who kept singing Beatles tunes.  Then Faith gets a call from her new boyfriend and uses that call to turn to screws in George’s side.  It’s that kind of union.

I so admired Goldman’s willingness to simply let the problems in George and Faith’s marriage be messy and not use them as bullet points.  I can easily see how this movie might have gone completely wrong with all kinds of useless monologues, but the film breathes with the patterns of real life.  There is just as much amicable parting as there is bitterness.  We can see that in their union with their respective partners.  George’s new girlfriend Sandy (Karen Allen) seems so hardbound that you wonder if the union isn’t only in the bedroom.  Faith’s new boyfriend Frank (Peter Weller) is such a dud that you wonder if she didn’t pick him out at random just to spite George.

All of this could have been used to make a film that might have been a torrent of stagey melodrama, like a bad Neil Simon play, but the material is dead serious, particularly when it deals with the couple’s four daughters.  The marriage is breaking up, but the movie never forgets that there are causalities involved and we can see that it is creating wounds in the children that will last a lifetime.

I admired Shoot the Moon a great deal.  I admired its brutal honesty.  I admired its uncompromising portrait of a couple whose relationship is disintegrating.  I admired its maturity.  And yet, when it was over, I wasn’t left with a sense of the clouds parting.  In fact, I wasn’t too sure that the ending really worked.  I guess I was hoping for more of a life-goes-on ending along the lines of Ordinary People.  I walked away from this movie knowing and admiring what I had seen but I wasn’t too convinced on the note that it left me.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Drama