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In her New York City apartment, interior designer Patsy Newquist faces another dismal day of obscene phone calls, rusty water pipes, electrical blackouts and pervasive urban violence. When she sees a man being beaten in the street below, Patsy, a forceful and optimistic single woman, attempts to call the police, but after she is put on hold, then disconnected, she enters the fray herself, hitting the muggers with her purse. As she struggles with the men, their target, photographer Alfred Chamberlain, walks away. Patsy breaks free and runs after Alfred, upbraiding him for not defending her as she did him. Alfred chides her in return, telling her that the men were getting tired and would have stopped soon. Baffled by Alfred's insistence that there was no point in fighting back, Patsy questions him while he takes her to his apartment, where she looks at his photographs. Believing that Alfred is depressed, Patsy determines to make him have fun and introduces him to various sports and hobbies. Although Alfred tells Patsy that he thinks she is a "terrific girl," he declines to sleep with her, declaring her that he will let her know when he feels like it. One day as they are horseback riding, Patsy tells him that she wakes up with a smile every day, and when she is confronted by problems, thinks of the good things in her life. When Patsy states that she is falling in love with him, Alfred replies that he does not know what love is and rides off. Later, while they are swimming, Alfred admits that he "nearly" trusts her, and as they return to her apartment, expresses interest in making love. Upon entering, however, they discover that Patsy's apartment has been burglarized. After they make love, Patsy cheerfully lists new furnishings to buy and how Alfred can use her apartment as a studio after they are married in two weeks. Alfred accedes to her plans, and while he nervously prepares to meet her family, Patsy's parents, Carol and Marge Newquist, argue about what sort of boyfriend Patsy has acquired, as she frequently dates unsuitable men whom she wishes to change. Carol and Marge, along with Patsy's younger brother Kenny, raucously welcome Patsy, then inspect Alfred, who is staunching a nosebleed from yet another beating. The Newquists question the tall, athletic-looking Alfred about his beatings, and he explains that "there are a lot of little people who like to start fights with big people." Alfred further states that the encounters do not hurt if he daydreams about his work, and that as a self-professed "apathist," he has no interest in fighting back. Baffled by Alfred's passivity, the Newquists inquire about his work and Alfred explains that he once was a successful commercial photographer. When he "began losing his people," however, he started photographing objects instead of people, and regained his prestige with a show of pictures of computers. Infuriated by what he perceived as the low standards of critics and the advertising world, Alfred decided that he would receive awards even if all he photographed was excrement. When the family expresses outrage, Alfred derisively replies that he has received half a dozen awards for his collages over the past year. After an awkward dinner, Patsy and Alfred leave, and Patsy expresses frustration with her lack of progress in changing Alfred. He insists that she should rest on her laurels rather than pressing her luck with a nihilist, but Patsy, again buoyed by the challenge, telephones her parents to tell them that she and Alfred are definitely marrying. Alfred insists that no mention of God be made in the ceremony, and after a disastrous visit to a pontificating judge, they hold the wedding at the First Existential Church, presided over by Rev. Henry Dupas. Although Carol attempts to bribe Henry, a hippie-like minister who embraces all manner of behaviors as "all right," to mention God during the ceremony, he does not. Henry's unorthodox views unnerve even Patsy, and after the wedding, when Henry casually pronounces that Kenny's homosexuality is "all right," a brawl ensues. Patsy and Alfred quarrel, with her declaring that because he will not fight back, he does not feel, and if he does not feel, he cannot love. Believing that their marriage is already over, Alfred packs to leave, but Patsy insists that he stay. Determined to understand Alfred, Patsy orders him to go to Chicago to visit his parents, even though he has not seen them since he was seventeen, and record their answers to a questionnaire she has prepared about his childhood. When Alfred refuses, Patsy breaks down, stating that Alfred is correct that the "only true feeling is no feeling," and that only through passivity can one survive. Distressed, Alfred acquiesces and goes to Chicago, where the intellectual, emotionally distant Chamberlains reply to his questions with quotes from child psychologists until finally, they confess they do not remember his childhood. Disappointed and fearful of losing Patsy, upon his return, Alfred reveals to her that when he was in college, he was under surveillance by the FBI due to his political activism, and that his mail was being monitored. Alfred began a letter-writing campaign to the anonymous agent reading his mail by writing letters to the agent, challenging him to meet face-to-face to discuss their common bonds of brotherhood. Alfred continued writing to the man, instilling fear in him by questioning why he got stuck with such a low-level job and wondering whether someone was watching him, too. One day, an overwrought man appeared and protested to Alfred that he was merely doing his job. When Alfred persisted, claiming to have proof of a conspiracy against the man, he drove the agent to a nervous breakdown. Realizing how hollow his victory was, Alfred vowed never to fight for anything again. Telling Patsy how formidable she is, and how she has influenced him, Alfred promises to become optimistic and admits that his first feeling is one of worship for her. As they embrace, however, a sniper in a neighboring building shoots Patsy dead. In shock and covered with blood, Alfred goes to the Newquists' apartment. There, the family is horrified to learn that they have lost another child to random violence, as Patsy's older brother had been killed by a sniper six months earlier, and the perpetrator was never caught. Alfred sits in a stupor as time passes and the Newquists install steel shutters over their windows, elaborate locks and an alarm system. Carol cares for Alfred while Kenny hides in the closet until one afternoon, they are visited by police lieutenant Practice, who is heading the investigation of the sniper murders. Practice, mentally unbalanced by his efforts to solve the 345 motiveless homicides that have occurred in the past six months, rants at the Newquists that there is an elaborate conspiracy gripping the city. After Practice departs, Carol has a breakdown himself, calling for extreme measures to protect law-abiding citizens. When Carol collapses at his feet, Alfred finally rouses himself and goes outside to the park, where, for the first time in years, he is moved to take pictures of people and celebrate life and movement. When he returns with a bouquet and a high-powered rifle, the revitalized Alfred kisses Marge's cheek and enlists Kenny and Carol to load the weapon. Opening the shutters, Alfred encourages the other men to begin shooting at random, and Carol, who takes the first turn, easily "gets `im." Kenny is the next to kill a passerby, and when Alfred shoots, Carol triumphantly declares that he has shot Practice. Screaming with joy, the men declare that they are going to fight back and no longer be victims. Marge calls them to dinner and, watching the men's hijinks, declares how good it is to hear her family laughing again.