Familial tear jerks have always been a popular staple in cinema, but boy were they popular in the 1980s. Past Oscar winners like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People both dealt with families going through crisis; the latter, especially, looked at the death of a family member. In the interest of full disclosure, Terms of Endearment is my mother’s favorite movie of all time (next to Steel Magnolias), and I won’t be getting dessert for awhile after telling her that I wasn’t a fan of this. Terms of Endearment is good, has some decent jokes, and has a riveting performance by Jack Nicholson – who would become a regular of director James L. Brooks’ films. The problem lies in the rest of the characters as well as the overall tone of the movie. This is a “weepy woman” film and the script is written by a man who barely knows the subject. By the end, I was left emotionally drained from frustration. I don’t begrudge those who love this film, there’s something to like within if you enjoy movies like this, but I found it overly sentimental and ultimately overrated.
Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is a fiery woman with strong principles in life and love. Her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger) has always felt smothered and coddled by her mother and quickly marries a man named Flap (Jeff Daniels). As the two women go on widely divergent paths, they’ll seek strength within each other.
I do identify a bit with the overall arc of the story, having an overprotective mother myself (although my mother isn’t on the same level, smothering-wise, as Aurora). The opening sequence tells the audience all you need to know about Aurora as a mother, going in and pinching an infant Emma to prevent her from dying of “crib death.” The voice of an off-screen Rudyard (voiced by Albert Brooks), Aurora’s husband, pleading with his wife to leave the child alone does nothing for Emma, or for Rudyard who dies in the next scene. You understand the relationship Aurora and Emma have, where it’s as beneficial as it is destructive. Aurora gives Emma little encouragement or support, in the guise of being “honest” with her. When Emma wants to marry Flap, Aurora tells her “you’re not special enough to survive a bad marriage.” Regardless of how she personally feels about the marriage, shouldn’t she be a little encouraging to her daughter on the day of her wedding? It’s as if Aurora sets her daughter up to fail, and of course Emma does, leaving the audience to nod their head and say “Mother was right.” Even later, when Emma tells her mother she’s pregnant with her third child, Aurora reacts like it’s the worst thing in the world. I understand being unhappy with someone’s life plan, and wanting to be constructive, but Aurora is downright mean.
I will say Shirley MacLaine playing Aurora is fantastic casting; she’s tempestuous, snobby, and overtly proper. Aurora Greenway is a woman of ideals who won’t comprise them…for a bit. Her relationship with next-door neighbor Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) is an interesting analysis in showing two older people enjoying a healthy sexual relationship and it’s one of the more honest elements of the film. The two have a sweet relationship that’s enduring, especially when he supports Aurora during Emma’s illness. By the end, Aurora, and the audience, are surprised that Garret is turns out to be a nice guy. It’s the one instance of the script defying the audiences plot conventions, and with a man like Jack Nicholson no less (although the script isn’t too subtle about characters, I mean look at Garrett’s last name). As for the relationship between Garrett and Aurora, I would have enjoyed it if the moral wasn’t “all an uptight woman needs is to get laid.” Yep, the minute Aurora starts having sex she loosens up and actually becomes a decent mother to Emma. You could argue that her love for Emma was there all along, and there was never a doubt in my mind that Aurora loves her child, but the ability to express that love only seems to come through after her sexual encounter with Garrett. She even becomes somewhat nicer to Flap, albeit not by much.
Terms of Endearment is one of those films where audiences generally enjoy one set of relationships over another. I found the romance between Garrett and Aurora unique and satisfying, which made all the moments, we dealt with Flap and Emma to be insufferable; part of this is attributed to the plot of marital infidelity, which hits close to home in my case. On the other hand, the script really underwrites Emma and Flap as shallow, weak-willed people who refuse to open their eyes and accept responsibility for their actions. Flap is the easier case because he’s 50% shallow and 50% overwhelmed. There are moments where Flap feels like a fully realized character who just plain can’t handle his situation. My mother went on about him being a jerk, particularly at the end when he allows Emma to pass the children on to Aurora at her death, but I didn’t see it that way. Yes, Flap is an adulterer and an overall jerk, but he does love his children and the way Daniels conveys emotion, you can tell he feels regret about not being able to provide for them and giving them up; he doesn’t want to, but for once he’s “understanding his weaknesses” as Aurora explains to him. Daniels, MacLaine, and Nicholson are able to emote, and make the audience feel the weight of their decisions…unlike Debra Winger.
I’m sorry, but I hated Debra Winger as Emma and hated the way the script portrayed her. Living with Aurora for so long you’d expect some semblance of strength and independence to come off of Emma. Yes, she’s been coddled, but she should possess a backbone, or at least an ability to stand up for what she wants. Instead, she constantly vacillates between love and hate with Flap, and the script fails her at every turn. Take her relationship with John Lithgow’s Sam. He’s a character Emma declares is important to her, but he disappears halfway through the movie and never returns! Winger gets in some good shots in the film – moments where I think of my own mother – like her yelling at her son to “WAIT BY THE CAR,” but the script isn’t interested in her enough to elevate her into the domestic punching bag by which every bad thing (infidelity, poverty, cancer, death) that can happen in a life does. She’s Precious for the 1980s Yuppie.
As evidenced by my mentioning of the script, James L. Brooks’ screenplay is the real failure here. He writes men well, as evidenced by the characterizations of Garrett and – to a lesser extent – Flap, but fails utterly with the females. Aurora is a principled bitch easily fixed by having sex, while Emma is weak-willed and ends up as a martyr to put-upon women. Women struggle and triumph, but there’s no real triumph for either female, only struggle. I haven’t read the original source material, penned by Larry McMurtry, so I’ll let you tell me if the characters are any better. As they stand within the film, Brooks isn’t coy about writing what he knows and it isn’t females.
Terms of Endearment isn’t terrible, but I can’t fathom what all the fuss is about. The script is half-cooked and leans heavily towards being a story about well-rounded men and shallow, fickle females. Every bad plot contrivance that can be cooked and baked into a movie is presented here, leaving you to wonder if this is meant to be a slice-of-life or just a weepy melodrama. If it’s the former, it’s trying to hard; if it’s the latter, it’s right on the nose.