This year marks the 35th anniversary of Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks. Winner of five Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Director (Brooks’ debut), Best Writing – Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine) and Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), it’s not hard to see why Terms of Endearment is a classic. Unfortunately, I must be blind because I think Terms of Endearment is a bad movie.
Terms of Endearment takes place in Houston, Texas where Emma (Debra Winger) is getting married to Flap (Jeff Daniels). Questions to why his name is actually Flap should be assigned to Larry McMurty who is the author of the novel. Emma’s mother Aurora (MacLaine) doesn’t approve of Flap (strangely enough, it has nothing to do with his name) and warns her daughter, “you are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” We are given a few scenes of Aurora and Emma (one as a baby, a child and an adult) before Emma leaves for Des Moines to raise a child but we get the gist of their relationship quickly. Aurora is neurotic, bossy and cold. Emma is joyous, loving and spontaneous. Both MacLaine and Winger put tremendous amount of energy into their performances that make them interesting to watch (in the first twenty minutes, but I’ll get back to that). As time passes, we see developments between the two women and other characters like retired astronaut Garrett (Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson) and awkward banker Sam (John Lithgow). Problems arise and our characters attempt to overcome them leading to success or failure.
Let’s talk about the highs of this film and I can make this quick. The acting is excellent. There is no question that MacLaine, Winger, Nicholson, Daniels and Lithgow are talented when it comes to acting and this film highlights this. Each of the following characters get their own moment to shine and they do so with aplomb. One could accuse Jack Nicholson of always playing the same character (for the most part), but it’s hard not to love his devilish grin when he sleazes up to Aurora.
The single greatest failure of Terms of Endearment is the unfocused script. Scenes and time jump forward with a rapid pace. In approximately three scenes with Emma we can go through marriage, pregnancy and having a child. One scene perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon when Aurora goes on a screamfest. The scene begins with her running onscreen and escalates in what could be a powerful performance. But it doesn’t feel earned. There’s no build-up or connection to an earlier scene. Emma and Flap having marital issues, Emma and Aurora making up; these moments appear with a snap of the finger. It was probably developed better in a novel where one can take time with pacing. At the end of the day, Emma has to have three children and the movie speeds through for the expense of brevity but we lose a natural rhythm.
According to Wikipedia and the back of the DVD, Terms of Endearment is ultimately about the relationship between Aurora and her daughter Emma. The end certainly captures this but it’s a payoff without a building momentum. By the end the only tears I was shedding was from boredom. Aurora and Emma’s relationship in the first twenty minutes (I got back to it) is interesting because we’re seeing the building blocks of their relationship (it also helps that they’re in the same setting and not over the telephone). The quick passage of time doesn’t work with a movie that is 132 minutes. In one scene, Aurora hastily suggests that Emma could have an abortion and Emma reacts naturally. Later, Emma is quizzing Aurora about her relationship with Garrett. We never see them make-up and most scenes seem to be about Emma and Aurora’s relationship with other people. Those are interesting but feel scattered at the same time.
Another element that added to my headache while watching this film was a repetitious twinkling piano score that seemed to arrive on schedule to keep my head continually pounding. At one point, I felt the movie was reaching its natural conclusion and I paused the movie. I had 50 minutes left. After what felt like a second eternity, I paused the movie again. I had 30 minutes left. Terms of Endearment! Most people will find it heart-warming and a tear-jerker. I felt that it was just lucky; a bad movie that was in the company of worse movies and Scarface.