I’m not quite sure what I think about James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment. Here is a film that won best picture at the 1984 Oscars, beating out a favorite of mine, The Big Chill. Everyone I talk to says they love it and here I am feeling a tad lukewarm on the whole spectacle. At first glance, I can’t really comprehend what I saw exactly. Truthfully, the whole thing seems as though it was a device to get us to the end, the one sequence of time that has relevant meaning. By the conclusion, not much really happened, a young couple get married and have three children, infidelity ensues, the woman’s mother hits mid-life and her usual cold self thaws into the arms of an astronaut, the family falls apart and gets put back together over and over again…what’s new? However, the more I think that what we have is the Usual Suspects syndrome—a decent film blessed with a resonant finale—the more I think about how genuine and realistic every moment was. Yes, it all means nothing without the end, but then I guess that can be said for most things. All the relationships evolve and grow in ways that are obvious and others that come straight from left field. One can’t fault any step taken because without the hour and a half exposition the payoff would not mean even close to what it actually does.
The acting is across the board phenomenal, no question. From the screen veterans to a surprising early turn, (possibly his first non-TV credit), by Jeff Daniels, everyone plays flawlessly. Even Debra Winger, as the glue holding everything together throughout all the hard times, who grated on me early on with her annoying Texas country-bumpkin attitude, comes out as a truly profound performance. Her naïveté and her kindness are what make her who she is. That ability to see the good in everyone and the realization of her place as a mother to her children, similar to that which her own mother had with her, but not quite, is the only reason the wheels didn’t fall off much earlier. When you see the vain lifestyle her best friend has started living, coming home as though she is still the country girl she used to be, you begin to understand the honesty for which Emma Greenway Horton has always lived for. Sure she never discloses her infidelity to her husband, but besides that she never was anything but true to herself and those around her. Even the messed up marriage at the end was acceptable because their love for their children and each other was too much to allow the fact they were no longer a couple to ruin any of what was between them. If nothing else, this film shows us a glimpse into values, while not perfect, that one just doesn’t see much of anymore. Family is always first; their wellbeing over your own as evidenced with Daniels’ tough decision at the end.
I was with the whole Winger/Daniels story thread if for nothing else but because I knew it was the central backbone to the whole. Besides a nice turn from John Lithgow, nothing else really stood out above the idea of getting a history of them across. What stuck with me most was the relationship between the matriarch of the Greenway family, played larger than life by Shirley MacLaine, and the astronaut next-door Jack Nicholson. These two have sparks flying from the first moment they share the screen. When she goes over and accepts his lunch invitation from a decade earlier, Nicholson’s reaction is worth the price of admission alone. The treat of that lunch date, complete with his curtsy comment at its finish, is just gravy on top. His character coming back—who really did think he’d be a good guy?—just helps to complete that arc and allow the ending to stand on its own without any outside questioning of people not present. Allowing MacLaine full dedication to her daughter’s illness is the best thing that could have been done. That connection is what makes the film work despite its shortcomings.
Even though the fact that the conclusion is a total contrivance utilized to get everyone together to “come to terms” with each other, it still works on a raw emotional level for me that I am able to look beyond the blatant attempt by the filmmakers to tell me how I should feel. It is moments like the son and Nicholson in the final scene, as well as the likeable, glorified adulterer Lithgow, that gave me the satisfaction necessary to accept all the fluff on the edges. You cannot argue that each bond is one that can be related to on some level. At times you believe this family is real and you are just catching a glimpse of their lives as in a documentary, that is how honest their portrayals are. Dysfunction is an understatement, but nothing happens that I couldn’t shake my head to and understand exactly where they were coming from. At the end, it was an enjoyable experience on a pure storytelling level. Maybe a tad juvenile and completely structured for full emotional heartbreak, it held enough realism so that the craft didn’t overpower it completely. The end is definitely heartbreaking and while Hollywood in the way everything works out, I have to give all involved credit for allowing the relationship between Winger and her eldest son to play out as it did. Setup from the absolute start, from his putting his coat on at age five to leave the house while his parents made love upstairs, to the poignant farewell, that bond is what will stay with me for days to come.
Terms of Endearment 7/10 | ★ ★ ★