The march toward thoughtful filmmaking goes on. 'Shoot the Moon'

Shoot the Moon continues the recent march toward adult moviemaking. The subject is ordinary: a marriage falling apart. What's unusual is that the filmmakers explore not only the fading romance between the two adults, and not only the strain between them and their children. Rather, this is a true family drama - balancing all the issues, and treating all the characters as the whole human beings they are.

The result is a rich film that refuses to dish out easy answers. Some of its details are harrowing, some of its attitudes are questionable, some of its language is vulgar. Yet its maturity and intelligence are beyond doubt, and its compassion toward its characters is deep and delicate.

The story centers on a successful writer named George and his wife, named -- a touch too significantly -- Faith. Played by Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, they live with their four young daughters in a comfy California house. George has fallen in love with another woman, and Faith has found out, and all that remains is the completion of their divorce.

So far, it's conventional stuff. But screenwriter Bo Goldman and director Alan Parker realize, as few filmmakers do, that years of marriage don't just vanish when circumstances change. George and Faith have come to know, to need, to depend on each other in ways deeper than either of them knows. It's a struggle for them to separate, even though this seems the logical and necessary course. The film probes their interdependency, their complicated and sometimes violent inner conflicts, and their ambivalence over ending the long partnership in which they have invested so much time, energy, and love.

As in his last film, the excellent ''Melvin and Howard,'' screenwriter Goldman uses an unusual structure. ''Shoot the Moon'' doesn't charge ahead from Point A to Point Z in the usual movie way. Instead, there's a retreat to match every advance. Sure, the characters change: George goes deeper into his new romance, Faith finds a boyfriend of her own, the children wrestle with their father's absence. But emotions tend to edge out decisions, and the boundaries between love and rage, hope and despair, anguish and resignation, are thin and razor sharp.

The film culminates in separate climaxes, both marked by outbursts of violence. While they seem excessive, they are clearly rooted in the actions and feelings that precede them. ''Shoot the Moon'' is about civilized, everyday folks who have reached the end of their civilized, everyday tethers. The extremity of their behavior comes as a shock, but a predictable one, even in the context of Parker's controlled cinematic style. Meanwhile, hope continues to breathe even when time and simple humanity seem exhausted at last.

As sometimes happens with good movies, ''Shoot the Moon'' has been greeted with some wild critical overpraise, and some overly negative reaction to this. For the sake of fairness, it's important to note that the film, while unusually strong, has its share of flaws. It is punctuated with cliches, for instance -- the conveniently overheard phone call, the hand poised over the doorknob, the pensive stroll by the sea. At least one whole sequence hits a false note as a foul-mouthed restaurant argument deliberately degenerates into grim farce. And the overall excellence of the children's scenes is marred by Goldman's occasional overwriting: His riffs based on repeated words are more cloying than cute. Also, the kids' occasional vulgarity will dismay some viewers despite its realism, given this period and milieu.

Then too, ''Shoot the Moon'' seems a bit arch in its concentration on characters who live on a very comfortable economic level. Like the heroes of ''Ordinary People,'' these are not ordinary people at all: Faith's biggest financial problem is finding the deposit for her new tennis court, while George gazes at the sea from a posh office as he ponders his future. Such fiscal luxury probably makes sense in terms of movie marketing -- rich folks can identify with the story, while everyone else digests the standard message that money can't buy you-know-what. Still, ''Shoot the Moon'' might stand on even stronger ground if it didn't isolate its characters from problems that aren't purely emotional.

Some of the movie's biggest risks pay off handsomely enough to offset any miscalculations, however, the best example being the finale. While the last words are so thudding that they provoked snickers in at least one press screening of the picture, the final image -- a man, in desperate straits, surrounded by his family -- is close to profound, and is sure to linger in the memory long after the verbal symbolism of the scene is forgotten. And several other episodes are just about perfectly realized. They represent Hollywood moviemaking at its most eloquent and are stunning in their impact.

Though they were technically strong, director Parker's earlier films (the childlike ''Bugsy Malone,'' the nasty ''Midnight Express,'' the messy ''Fame'') hardly suggested the depth of meaning and emotion that would be realized in ''Shoot the Moon.'' Such strength is less surprising from screenwriter Goldman, whose ''Melvin and Howard'' also dealt with commonplace American values in an uncommon way. The performances are all first-rate, from the grown-ups to the youngsters. Diane Keaton's nuanced portrayal shows up her acting in ''Reds'' (also overpraised) as the second-class work it is, while the hugely gifted Finney - whose own ''Charlie Bubbles'' dealt superbly with similar material years ago -- recoups for his mediocre recent work.

''Shoot the Moon'' doesn't reach the eccentric emotional heights of John Cassavetes's ''A Woman Under the Influence,'' perhaps the best family drama ever made. But flaws and all, it towers over most of the kiddie movies that have dominated the cinema scene for too long. It will be taken very seriously for a very long time.

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