Terms of Endearment

Director: James L. Brooks
Screenplay:James L. Brooks (based on the novel by Larry McMurtry)
Stars: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Horton), JackNicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns),Danny DeVito (Vernon Dahlart), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Betty King (Rosie)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1983
Country: USA
Terms of Endearment Poster

In the introduction to the paperback edition of Terms of Endearment, author LarryMcMurtry noted that he wrote the novel after having spent a couple of years rereadingseveral 19th-century novelists, including Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and George Eliot. AsMcMurtry put it, "All three, of course, had taken a very searching look at the fibers andtextures of life; I doubt I aspired to such profound achievement, but I did hope to search atleast a little less superficially among the flea market of details which constitute humanexistence."

McMurtry is, in many ways, being modest, as it is the tiny details and nuances of funny,sometimes painful, but always recognizable human behavior that make his novels soreadable and memorable. Writer/director James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets)adapted Terms of Endearment in 1983 and, despite it being his directorial debut,swept that year's Academy Awards. While some aspects of the film version ofTerms have not aged all that well, it still plays with sincerity and emotionalresonance because Brooks stayed true to McMurtry's search through "the flea market ofdetails which constitute human existence."

Terms of Endearment tells the story of the mother-daughter relationship betweenAurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), whom McMurtry described as "a widow of a certainage, lively, imperious, demanding, unwilling to give up," and her daughter, Emma (DebraWinger), who is completely unlike her mother, yet inextricably bound to her. Theirrelationship is not always easy, but it is always deeply real. Aurora, a character who is asfascinating as she is confounding, is almost painfully honest with her daughter, such as theearly scene in the film in which she declares on Emma's wedding night that she is marryingthe wrong man.

Of course, Aurora is right. Emma's husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), is an amiable, but utterlyuncompelling college English teacher who ultimately fails Emma at all the wrong moments.In her own ways, Emma fails Flap, as well. McMurtry is no overt moralist, and one of thestrengths of his novels is his understanding and acceptance of human flaws and how theyplay out in various relationships. Brooks stays true to this humanistic view, allowingAurora, Emma, and the other characters to fall into all of life's traps, yet always come out,ready to move on to life's next stage.

James L. Brooks has been insistent on calling Terms of Endearment a comedy,even though its sense of the dramatic outweighs the laughs its generates. One of the film'smost enduring qualities is Brooks' ability to blend the comedic and the dramatic, perhapsnowhere better than in Aurora's relationship with Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), aswaggering, playboy ex-astronaut who lives next door to her. Her relationship with Garrettis so unlikely that it rings true. There is something about the two characters and the wayMacLaine and Nicholson play them that makes us believe that these two opposites wouldultimately attract; they fill in each other's gaps.

The actors in Terms of Endearment deserve a great deal of credit because thehonesty of their performances makes the material work. Both Shirley MacLaine and JackNicholson won Oscars for their roles, and Debra Winger was nominated for hers. MacLaineetches the portrait of an unforgettable screen character in Aurora, a woman whosecomplexities and eccentricities match her (sometimes forced) dignity and willpower.Nicholson's performance is a bit of showpiece, but he brings a deeper humanity to whatcould have been a shallow, one-note character. And, even though Winger did not win anOscar, her performance is the lynchpin, the part that truly holds the film together. It is tooeasy to overlook what she has done because she plays the plain daughter to MacLaine'sshowy mother, but she is arguably the most important character because she embodies thekind of innate decency to which all the other characters must aspire.

Staying true to the book's narrative arc, the final quarter of Terms of Endearmenttakes a turn for the tragic, which could have been simply maudlin and weepy, but insteaddeepens the resonance of the various character relationships. Death-bed sequences are mostoften dramatically excruciating because they are so obvious and easy; when all else fails,drag out the tragic death of a major character. But, somehow Brooks manages to maintain aprotracted hospital sequence that gives us all the cliches about a major character dying ofcancer without ever feeling false. I don't think it's because these final scenes in and ofthemselves are particularly great, but because the characters have been so well-defined andhave grown so close to us over the previous two hours that we are willing to accept this plotdevelopment because we want to see how they characters persevere through it.

©2001 James Kendrick

Terms ofEndearment DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish(5.1, 1.0), French (1.0)
Supplements Audiocommentary by director James L. Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, andproduction designer Polly PlattOriginal theatrical trailer

Visually, Terms of Endearment is notsignificantly more creative than a run-of-the-mill made-for-TV movie (James L. Brooks'roots in TV sitcoms really show through here). However, the new anamorphic widescreentransfer on this DVD makes the film look as good as it's ever going to. The film was shotwith a somewhat soft focus (especially in the opening scenes), so the image is not quite assharp as you might expect. However, the detail levels are very good, and colors look wellsaturated and natural throughout. There is rarely a hint of grain, and there were nocompression artifacts to be found.

The disc includes both a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1surround soundtrack and a restored original monaural soundtrack. The new 5.1 remixdoesn't expand much beyond the monaural soundtrack except for when music is present,and it is at this point that it truly shines. Michael Gore's catchy theme music (once in yourhead, it's hard to get it out) sounds fantastic throughout, as the surround channels give it adeep, rich expansiveness that underscores its thematic importance throughout the film.Dialogue is clear throughout, and the overall soundtrack comes across clear and crisp.

Screenwriter and director James L. Brooks, co-producerPenney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt contribute a lively, if somewhatuneven screen-specific audio commentary. This is obviously the first time they've sat downand watched the film in some time, as there are moments when they simply sit in silencewaiting for the next joke they know is coming. They do share some good memories aboutthe production, including some funny stories about their 80-year-old script supervisor whowas once William Faulkner's mistress and the Jack Nicholson playing his drunk scenes intrue Method fashion: drunk. Brooks repeatedly emphasizes his innocence and inexperienceas a director, sometimes to the point of overkill. However, he, Cox, and Platt give a genuinesense of having had a good time making a movie that they are still proud of.

Also included is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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