Terms of Endearment

Some people call them warm human dramas, others call them “people” movies. Whatever they’re called, they don’t rely on stunts or special effects to tell their stories. Ordinary People was the title of one such movie, and maybe the promise of no-frills, ordinary drama is part of the appeal.

Terms of Endearment probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Ordinary People. Human drama may be bankable now, and Terms of Endearment has nothing particularly extraordinary in its subject matter, just the behavior of people in the face of life, love, and death.

The people are a bit unusual—and that’s all to the good. Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) is a cool, eccentric widow who keeps a tight rein on her daughter Emma (Debra Singer), even after Emma moves away from home to live in Des Moines with her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), a college professor.

Aurora and Emma are amusingly at odds through much of their lives—and we get to see a lot of those lives, since the film’s two hours and 20 minutes cover 30 years or so. Aurora so disapproves of Flap that she boycotts her daughter’s wedding. That’s an act characteristic of their testy relationship.

Emma is as trusting and open as Aurora is careful and tidy. Their lives start to look more similar, however, when they both find new loves: Emma, disenchanted with her ne’er-do-well husband, starts spending afternoons with a shy bank manager (John Lithgow).

Aurora really cuts loose. She takes up with the irresponsible, irresistible former astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson, in a wonderful role). Their scenes together are the most liberating in the film, for both Aurora and the audience.

Terms of Endearment is full of such changes of plot and character. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s nice when you can’t predict where a film is going, but too many of the plot devices in Terms of Endearment feel like—well, devices.

This is writer-director James L. Brooks’s first job as director (he’s had extensive work as a television writer—especially with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and he wrote the Burt Reynolds movie, Starting Over). Brooks has written (from Larry McMurtry’s novel) some terrific dialogue here.

One of Brooks’s best scenes has the astronaut telling Aurora that he can’t continue seeing her. He needs greater freedom, etc., etc. Halfway through his spiel, she looks at him, makes a face, and start muttering, “Blah, blah, blah.” She’s angered by his shallowness, and he realizes what a rotten egg he’s being—and eventually slinks away, ashamed. “Blah, blah” may not sound like good dialogue, but at this moment, it is—and Brooks recognized that.

Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t have the knack for structure that he does for dialogue. The film has a lumpy shape to it, and it’s sluggishly paced. There’s also a melodramatic curve in the last 40 minutes that seems as though it might have worked better in the novel than in the film, where it feels rather contrived.

The strange coincidences of life sometimes feel contrived, too—and maybe Brooks was trying to make that point. But despite the good intentions, flavorful dialogue, and engaging performances, Terms of Endearment comes off just a little too pat. That’s regrettable, because with fewer easy answers, the film might have been much richer, just on its own terms.

First published in the Herald, December 9, 1983

I sort of generally feel, when I see a movie, that I can predict what kind of a reception it is going to get. This is not very difficult to do. Terms of Endearment I did not guess. Before today’s hype machine came along to prepare us all for a movie’s box-office and Oscar chances well before it opens, I saw this film, enjoyed it, wrote a review, and expected it to pass along like the nice crowd-pleaser it was. I didn’t have a clue it would be a smash and sweep the main Oscars in a few months. In fact I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong when it comes to sensing how a movie is going to ride the zeitgeist. Winger and MacLaine are terrific, Nicholson is hilarious, and for almost a year there was no stopping the thing. Brooks had written, along with his great episodic TV work, one of my favorite TV movies, Thursday’s Game, a wistful little should-be cult title with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart.

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