All George Dunlap (Albert Finney) wants to do is to give his 13-year-old daughter a typewriter for her birthday. It is hardly the impossible dream; it isn’t even an unreasonable request. But George recently walked out on his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) and their four daughters, for all those vague but somehow imperative reasons for which people leave people these days, and Daughter Sherry (Dana Hill) is not buying any of them. Nor is she covering her confusion with forgiveness. Better just not to speak to the creep. When Faith tries to avoid a scene by keeping George out of their handsome old Marin County house, George breaks in and pounds up the stairs to confront his eldest. She fights off his blend of bewildered love and rage. He spanks her. She threatens him with a scissors. They end in a sodden tangle of bodies and emotions on her bed.
By this time the whole house is in an uproar, but as George staggers back down the stairs, a little voice rises above the others and, trying to control its hysteria, makes the sweet, placatory offer that has never been refused before: “Daddy, can I make you a hamburger with onions?” Up to this point the scene has been fine, a well-made representation of the craziness that is bound to burst forth in even the most civilized of separations. But that one line confirms a thought that has been building from the beginning of Shoot the Moon, namely that something rather special is at hand: a movie that attends the way real people respond to the realities of ordinary life.
Throughout, the moviemakers observe all kinds of quotidian events in the sundering of the Dunlaps without turning them into heavily fraught symbolic moments: the children clamoring for eye shadow as their mother tries to put on makeup for a party; the nervous chipperness of George’s lady friend (Karen Allen) when she meets the children for the first time; and their attempt to give her a fair chance without being disloyal to their mother; George self-consciously trying to be brave in front of them and not being able to keep the self-pity out of it; the puzzling way nostalgia has of flaring up as quickly as anger in the confrontation between former mates.
Concentration on the telling detail is a way good writers have of avoiding both melodrama and sentimentality, which blanched the hard truth of Kramer vs. Kramer. As he proved in Melvin and Howard, Bo Goldman is a very good writer, a man whose world appears to be filled with mild eccentrics and funny overheard remarks that he gets down just right in his mental notebook. His specificity seems to have disciplined Alan Parker, who in the past has liked to stress the ugly metaphorical overtones in his material (in Midnight Express he kept insisting that the whole world is a Turkish prison, when really only Turkish prisons are Turkish prisons). Except for reaching for too big a finish, a fight between George and the man who has taken his place in Faith’s life that is too brutal for what has gone before, Parker controls himself here.
Finney’s fuzziness, that slightly out-of-focus quality he often has onscreen, here serves his befuddled character perfectly. Keaton has the courage to let tiredness show in the lines around her mouth and eyes, to stipulate that she is the victim in this situation and then get on to other more interesting situations. Nobody ever tries to explain why the nice, successful Dunlaps are breaking up. These days, who knows? All anyone can say with certainty is that theirs is now among the most familiar of passages, and that Shoot the Moon is the best chart of it the movies have yet drawn.–Richard Schickel, Time Magazine, 02-01-82