Terms of Endearment
Director: James L. Brooks
Starring: Shirley Maclaine, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, Jack Nicholson
I don’t think it’s possible to be a consumer of popular culture and not have some concept of what Terms of Endearment is all about. The driving on the beach scene is the most famous cinematic moment from the film, but everyone seems to know the basics of the plot and how it ends. So really, I shan’t be terribly careful about keeping the ending a secret; I don’t consider it a spoiler in the least (it certainly wasn’t for me). You have now been warned.
Aurora Greenway (Maclaine) was widowed as a young mother. Living in Houston in a very nice house, she is anxious and overprotective of her young daughter Emma (Winger). When Emma grows up, Aurora disapproves of her husband, Flap Horton (Daniels), a young English professor. Emma and Flap have children and move away, but Emma and Aurora maintain their relationship through long distance phone calls. Eventually, Aurora starts to take up with the next door neighbor, ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Nicholson), while Flap and Emma both engage in extramarital affairs of their own. And then Emma’s doctor discovers a couple of lumps in Emma’s armpit, and cue the hospital sequences.
The basic plot outline of “mother-daughter relationship through the years culminating in untimely death of daughter” sounds exactly like the kind of melodramatic claptrap I desperately avoid. But Terms of Endearment manages to transcend its Lifetime: Television For Women trappings for two reasons. One: the movie is based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, he whose previous written work lead to The Last Picture Show, Hud, and most recently, Brokeback Mountain. Two: James L. Brooks, he who helped unleash The Simpsons onto an unwitting populace.
The way I see it, were it not for these two men (men in a women’s picture!), I would be writing a much angrier review right now. Both of them supply a very distinct and necessary counterweight to the saccharine story this film could easily devolve into.
For McMurtry’s part, he writes tales that have great and profound emotional resonance to them, but with a very flinty edge. He is not scared to thrust the knife in the gut when he must. Consider the cow slaughter sequence in Hud, and the bit with the tire iron in Brokeback Mountain. While there is no similar violence in this film, there is a similar dash of cold cruelty every now and then, a fact which offsets the story just when it was feeling too sweet. Perhaps it is in the way that Emma so blithely cheats on her husband, or how her oldest son Tommy still pulls away from her on her deathbed, or how Aurora flatly tells her daughter she won’t be attending her wedding. These moments, and their repercussions, help keep the film moving along a solid trajectory. In a Lifetime Movie of the Week, the last action in particular would be followed by scene upon scene of histrionic wailing and arguing. Not so in Terms of Endearment. Emma is upset with her mother, but doesn’t yell. She just walks out of the room. Although Aurora misses the wedding, the two are back speaking to one another in a matter of weeks. This is a very different tone from what I was expecting.
In terms of James L. Brooks, he takes these life events and injects a heaping dose of what has now become his trademark gentle comedy. I don’t think anyone does gentle comedy like Brooks. As Good As It Gets and Spanglish, two of his more recent directorial films, had that humor in spades, and I confess, I really like both of those movies. Terms of Endearment opens with a shot of baby Emma sleeping in her crib. Aurora peeks her head in the room while her husband yells at her from the next room to leave her alone. Aurora, however, is insistent that because her daughter is sleeping silently, it means her daughter has died, and is not content until she wakes Emma and Emma starts to cry. At this point, Aurora leaves the room happy. That scene immediately made me laugh, while remembering that this, after all, is James L. Brooks. So many of these moments throughout the film make you laugh or giggle while something life-changing is happening.
Both Maclaine and Nicholson won Oscars for their roles in this film. Both are very good, but not career-defining. For his part, this feels like the first film Nicholson made that was the Nicholson we have today: that older man with the creepy smile grabbing life by the ping pongs. In 1983, Nicholson was probably playing older than he actually was, and he gained weight to make himself seem more like a former superstar gone to promiscuous seed. At the time, it was probably a new Jack. Now, it’s lost its novelty; it’s the Jack who keeps making movies like The Bucket List. Hey, at least this flick is pretty good.
The central relationship that drives the film is that of mother and daughter. While not a perfect match, I kept being reminded of Gilmore Girls (only one of my favorite TV shows ever). Especially in the second half of the film, Aurora and Emma talk to one another more as friends than as mother and daughter, which is probably which I kept on thinking of Lorelai and Rory (it also didn’t hurt that Gilmore Girls references Terms of Endearment a couple times). I liked seeing that. But what confused me was how the movie, the entry in 1001 Movies, and pretty much every other review I read of this film talked about how Aurora and Emma have a strained relationship. I saw no such strain. When Aurora says to Emma that they fight all the time, Emma is surprised. “That’s just how you see it.” I can’t help but agree with Emma on this one. I honestly do not get how this is a tempestuous relationship. I saw a mother and daughter who clearly love each other, are very close, and occasionally piss each other off but never for long. How on earth is that a strained relationship?
Despite using too much soft-focus (waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much soft-focus) and dragging every now and again, there was enough bite in the story to keep it moving forward without getting bogged down. Sappy clichés can’t quite help from creeping in every now and then, but the film does its best to beat them back. And although it has certainly aged and dated itself (really, who hears they have two lumps in their armpits and doesn’t immediately want to get it checked out for cancer?!?), it’s still a nice little story. A little predictable and not exactly challenging, but every movie cannot – and should not – be a surrealist experiment.
Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10.