The Sentimental Melodrama of ’83: Terms Of Endearment Review

Terms Of Endearment won 5 Academy Awards in 1984 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, and James L. Brooks walked away with three that night as producer, director, and screenwriter. Terms Of Endearment follows the mother-daughter relationship of Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma Horton (Debra Winger) through a ten year period showcasing the highs and lows of both of their lives. It’s a grounded family drama that alternates between scenes of Aurora, alone at her home in Texas, and the life events of Emma as she gets married, at the start of the film, to college professor, Flap (Jeff Daniels). Emma and Flap have three children while they move three different times to accommodate Flap’s teaching career.

Narratively, Terms Of Endearment leaves a lot to be desired in terms of interesting characters or dynamic storytelling. This is a very slow, deliberate, and melodramatic look at the struggles of a married mother of three who never seems to catch a break and is constantly struggling  to get a grasp on life. I never found myself able to empathize with Emma as a character who I should care about, and I don’t ever really believe the performance I’m seeing from Winger, either.

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Shirley MacLaine gives a wonderfully spirited performance as Aurora who is rough around the edges and has a sharp tongue, which, at times, gets her into trouble, especially with her daughter. Eventually, she meets her match in retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). He starts the film portraying himself as the bachelor next door but the facade slowly fades when he starts pestering Aurora. Their scenes together are wonderful and full of great dialogue and banter. The way Garrett and Aurora keep one another on their toes was one of the few charming aspects of Terms Of Endearment and it was a pleasure to watch two great actors perform together.

It did occur to me that Jack Nicholson plays a very similar character in two following releases: As Good As It Gets (1997) and Something’s Got To Give (2003). We can see that most clearly in the breakup scene in the veranda, with the shot of the house and garden in the background. It’s only momentary that these scenes keep the rest of the movie afloat, the mundane family drama of Emma is Brooks’ main focus. Emma struggles through marriage troubles with Flap, believing him to be cheating. She has her hands full with three children, one an infant. And while all of this should garner at least some sympathy, the film is shot in a way that merely provides plot beats and story elements.

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There are few moments to acquire atmosphere or mood and the result is little more than a filmed play. There are some exceptions to this: the exterior scenes outside Aurora’s house and the Corvette scene with Garrett and Aurora, where he is sent flying after she pulls the e-break, is entertaining and fun. This is another example of Nicholson and MacLaine bringing up the quality of the rest of the film. The Academy awarded both with wins on Oscar night, MacLaine winning Best Actress over her co-star Winger and Nicholson winning Best Supporting Actor. I’m not sure what everyone else gets out of Terms Of Endearment, if people really feel like it was the best film of 1983.  Its musical score is cheesy and dated – it really layers the entire film with an “aw shucks” 50’s Leave-It-To-Beaver aesthetic.

Terms Of Endearment is deeply rooted in a dialogue-heavy dramatic comedy model that doesn’t allow for dynamic visual storytelling. It’s a super bland family drama that never gets off the ground. At the very end, we’re supposed to be moved to tears at the loss of a main character, but I never remotely got close to feeling that. I prefer James L. Brooks other film, As Good As It Gets, that also got much awards acclaim. I didn’t like Terms Of Endearment any more than I did when I watched it when I was 19. It’s overly sentimental, maudlin, and lacks dramatic depth. I can, however, honor the performances…the film doesn’t carry much else for me.

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