[box cover]

Terms of Endearment

Paramount Home Video

Starring Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson,
Jeff Daniels, and John Lithgow

Screenplay by James L. Brooks
Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry

Directed by James L. Brooks

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Review by Kerry Fall                    

In its day, Terms of Endearment was a huge success, both at the box office and at the 1984 Academy Awards, where it was named Best Picture. It brought first-time director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good as it Gets) two Oscars — one for his screenplay (adapted by Brooks from the Larry McMurtry novel) and one for directing. Shirley MacLaine also won for Best Actress and Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor. So it was with great excitement that I got my popcorn and wine, sent the kids to a friend's house for the night, grabbed a box of tissues, and popped in the Terms of Endearment DVD. I hadn't seen the film for more than ten years, and I was looking forward to a good old-fashioned guilty-pleasure cry.

Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered that the film has aged so badly and, in fact, is an overwhelmingly dreadful, nearly unwatchable load of crap.

Hmm. Ask any woman over the age of 25 what movie she recommends for someone who recently broke up with a lover, lost a pet, or just needs a good cry, and Terms of Endearment is liable to be her first choice. (Or if not number one, it will likely run a close second to either the overly sentimental Beaches or the girlfest Steel Magnolias). Terms of Endearment has been a benchmark chick-flick tearjerker since its release in 1983 — covering many issues that were near and dear to women at the time. It was a film that had women nodding knowingly at each other about the ineptitude of their well-meaning, but somehow inadequate men who just didn't understand how to behave or commit. The message was that men are weak, but ya gotta love 'em for being so darn adorable. It's just not their fault that they aren't as competent as women, and men do provide sex, which in the '80s, women of all ages were able to publicly admit they needed — even if it did still make them giggle and blush. Then there is the mother/daughter relationship in the film that made it okay to hate and love your mother for all the things she did and didn't do for you. As an added bonus, there's an acknowledgement of the unfair belittling of women who stayed home to mother their children — delightfully played out with a group of frigid New York career women. But wait, there's more! You also got to agonize over the most manipulative of all film plot devices — a slow death from cancer. All this, and the tabloid rumors of on-set catfights between the two female leads. Something for every woman to love!

Terms of Endearment stars Shirley MacLaine as Aurora, a Texas belle and widow who is sharp, refined, and uncompromising. Debra Winger is her daughter Emma, an unpolished down-to-earth type who marries a local boy (against her mother's wishes) and becomes the wife of a struggling professor, forced to live in various dull Midwest locations while raising three children. The film covers 30+ years of the relationship between this mother/daughter duo, chronicling the fighting, the gossiping, and their attempts to love and support each other when they are not hating and abusing each other. Aurora is lonely and horny, but she doesn't want to admit it. She has a circle of gentlemen callers, but she is only moved to try real love when a womanizing ex-astronaut (Jack Nicholson) moves in next door. Meanwhile, back in Des Moines, Emma is carrying on an affair with the local banker (John Lithgow) while her husband (Jeff Daniels) is sneaking around with one of his graduate students. When Emma discovers her husband's infidelity, tears, threats, and mayhem ensue, the kids become disgruntled victims, and then cancer enters the picture, everyone pulls together, and the tears and forgiveness flow — let the healing begin.

If Terms of Endearment is somewhat guilty of a maudlin tug or two at the heartstrings, the appallingly negative attitude the movie imparts towards men is, by current standards, almost scandalous. All of the men in the film are weak and/or pathetic. Daniels is saddled with the thankless part of a father who is totally detached from his kids, a husband too weak to stand up to his mother-in-law, and a lover who drags his family to a job in Nebraska so he can be near his mistress. When Emma finds out about his affair, she berates him and takes off with the kids. She never once admits to her own affair, as if it were of no consequence compared to his outrageous behavior. And in an excruciating scene that today would have fathers everywhere up in arms, Daniels' character almost jovially relinquishes custody of his kids with barely a second thought. He blithely goes along with handing his kids over to his mother-in-law as all agree that for him to parent his own children would just be too difficult a task — because, you see, he's just a guy. Lithgow, as Emma's lover, is weak-willed and whiny, and we never do learn why Emma would even be interested in him. Finally, Nicholson's character is a playboy who chases young women and acts like an out-of-control adolescent. Of course, it's no surprise that he turns out to be a cad. And even when he does eventually show some redeeming qualities, Aurora's comment is "Who would have expected you to be a nice guy?" It is this sentiment that permeates the film — don't expect much from men, because they are so very disappointing. As Brooks tells it, he wanted to make a film about cancer but keep it funny. Alas, we have become too wise. Today, Wit by Mike Nichols is a film about cancer. Terms of Endearment is simply an embarrassing reminder of '80s attitudes best left behind.

Paramount's DVD release of Terms of Endearment is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with audio in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track or DD 2.0 mono. The film itself often looks dull, with a hodgepodge of shots, styles, and lighting (Brooks admits that everyone on the film was a novice, and it shows.) The added commentary by Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt, is light and unfortunately limited, as too much time during the commentary is spent with the three of them just watching and reacquainting themselves with the film. That's something I — and all DVD fans — would prefer they had done before somebody hit the "record" button.

— Kerry Fall

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