Terms of Endearment rises above some awkward mechanics

aurora greenway emma greenway shirley maclaine debra winger terms of endearment

Like so many other pieces of pop culture – Citizen Kane, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – I became aware of Terms of Endearment through The Simpsons.  (Luckily, it was a throwaway joke to a porn entitled Sperms of Endearment, rather than a spoiler of the ending like the other two.)  But I’d also enjoyed The Last Picture Show from original author Larry McMurtry and As Good As It Gets from screenwriter/director James L. Brooks.  Describing Terms of Endearment as a cross between the two is not far off, but it has some qualities all its own as well.

The film covers a lot of ground, cross-cutting between mother Aurora (Shirely Maclaine), a . . . challenging parent to any child, let alone a sweet, sensitive one, and daughter Emma (Debra Winger), whose relationship with her mother is complicated to say the least.  Various men come in and out of their lives as well: Flap (Jeff Daniels) is Emma’s ne’er-do-well husband, Garrett (Jack Nicholson) is Aurora’s caddish neighbor, and several other suitors orbit them both for most of the film – one of which is played by Danny DeVito with a surprisingly convincing Texas accent.  While the ending – as tear-jerking as my wife promised – isn’t neatly wrapped up by any stretch, it provides a satisfying conclusion for a somewhat uneven film.

So, inspired by Kate at Film in Philly, this is my attempt to introduce standard, movie review plot summaries into my posts.  Feedback welcome.

Terms of Endearment’s tone is the thing I struggled the most with while watching.  Brooks’ background in shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi betrays him here a little.  It’s best summed up in a scene where Sam (Jon Lithgow) is describing his marital woes to Emma.  His wife can’t take bearing weight, you see, which makes relations challenging, as you can imagine, and she’s not the type to get on top, clearly, but he has asked her repeatedly, and so on.  It’s unclear if his joke at the end (“About 600 times.”) is meant to be an actual punchline, or part of some sort of deadpan routine that’s funny due to its lack of humor.  This and other scenes feel like they’re one absurb tweak away from something like Fargo, with sad Midwesterners unwittingly delivering comic gold, but then they trot out a sitcom one-liner that fails to land.

The pacing perplexed me as well.  The film is constructed like a lot of late-70s or early-80s films in that each shot has a meandering quality.  This isn’t unappealing, as I felt that Brooklyn – which I otherwise really enjoyed – was edited within an inch of its life.  In contrast, Terms of Endearment feels very loose.  A scene where Garrett erratically woos Aurora from the other side of a hedge progresses in fits and starts, and ends with both characters nonchalantly walking away and entering their respective houses.  If only this had been carried over to the entire film.

Instead, we check in with Aurora and especially Emma only at major plot points.  Thus, Brooks relies on a lot of external cues – pregnant bellies are newborns in the following scene, a surprising number of sequences involving moving – to get us up to speed.  But it would have been nice to see Emma’s disaffection with Flap and contemplation of an affair with Sam grow, rather than a succession of quick scenes showing her accusing Flap, meeting Sam, then having what is clearly the latest in a series of lunches with him.

[SPOILER ALERT]

To be honest, I didn’t think the film would come together for me.  A mid-movie popcorn break forced me to find a nice way to tell my wife (who was shocked both that I hadn’t seen it and didn’t already love it) that I didn’t think it was that great.  I should’ve said “yet,” because then – the ending.  I knew that there was something tear-jerky coming, but it’s handled with such deftness and subtlety that it really catches you off guard.  Winger’s performance especially, as she comes to terms (to steal a pun from the original poster) with her mother, her husband, and her eldest son, is devastating.

In that end, however, something magical happens.  The final scene, set during Emma’s wake, features all the major players save Lithgow, and they come and go from each other’s sides so naturally that suddenly the fitful pacing and the mismatched tone is replaced by something that almost feels like real life in its haphazardness.  Nothing is tied up neatly, but you feel that it might be; no one has changed dramatically, but you suddenly get why this random group of people might be a surrogate family for Aurora.  Maybe my wife was right.

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