Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Romance With A Bit Of Comedy, Terms Of Endearment Is Good, But Not Great.

The Good: Funny, Good character development, Decent acting
The Bad: Time leaps are problematic, Characters do unlikable things, Light on DVD bonus features, Soundtrack.
The Basics: Funny until it takes a turn to the depressing, Terms Of Endearment is a remarkably safe tear-jerker.

As my wife and I finish watching Frasier (reviewed here!), I've been trying to find things by people involved in that to keep exposing her to. My wife has grown to love Frasier and trying to find things with the same actors or by those who were involved in the production of it has kept us both entertained. I mention this at the outset of my review of Terms Of Endearment because my wife was excited about watching it with me because I told her that the writer/director of the film, James L. Brooks, was one of the co-creators of her now-beloved Frasier. As it turns out, Brooks is the creator of The Critic, which my wife loves, not Frasier. But this digression is not as pointless as it might seem; there are a lot of parallels between Terms Of Endearment and Frasier.

Like Frasier, Terms Of Endearment is character-driven story with both romantic and dramatic elements to it. Both are written with higher levels of diction and span many years in terms of storytelling. But, truth be told, Terms Of Endearment is no Frasier and while it had its moments, I found myself more neutral to the film than truly impressed by it. Terms Of Endearment is based upon a novel by Larry McMurtry, but this review is solely of the cinematic rendering of the story. Any of the problems or aspects of the book not included in the film remain unknown to me.

Growing up with her ultra-controlling mother, Emma looks forward to fleeing the nest. As a result, at the earliest possible time, she marries her high school fling, Flap. Despite her mother, Aurora's, insistence and protests that Flap is entirely wrong for her, Emma marries Flap and together they run off to Des Moines because of his teaching job. As Emma and Flap have children and struggle to maintain their marriage, Aurora overcomes feeling old about her age by starting to see the promiscuous former-astronaut who lives next door. While Aurora slowly overcomes her timidity and begins to fall in love with Garret, Emma deals with her family's poverty and the growing distance between her and Flap.

Not wanting his lifestyle to change, Garret eventually freaks out on Aurora and Emma and Flap grow even more distant as Emma suspects the young professor is cheating on her. Even as Emma has an affair of her own with a local banker, Flap is offered an opportunity in Nebraska. With the demands of raising their children and a health problem overwhelming her, Emma begins to turn to her mother in a way she never expected herself to.

Terms Of Endearment is an interesting character study that is laugh-out-loud funny in points and actually heartwrenching at others, but how it won the top Oscar prize remains a mystery to me. Perhaps this was another year when there were no truly great choices. Or perhaps it is because after not moving for an hour and a half, Terms Of Endearment becomes a surprisingly powerful drama. What Terms Of Endearment does very well is capture the randomness of life and the way that one’s fortunes are never truly anticipated. The early antagonist in the film, Aurora, has a decent arc whereby she slowly begins to loosen up and enjoy life, which is a far cry from the character who timidly enters her daughter's room convinced the baby is dead (preferring the screaming child to the sound asleep girl).

But what it failed to do for me was create empathetic characters. Terms Of Endearment is largely considered a classic tear-jerker because of the health issue with Emma in the last portion of the film, but before that, her character does a lot of things that make it hard to actually be on her side. The film never definitively establishes if Flap is actually cheating on her or if it is her being overly suspicious . . . until long after she is engaged in an extramarital affair herself. So, while by and large fans want to root for her, she does some things which are low and obvious that we do not see Flap engage in. In fact, his only confirmed affairs come after Emma is already cheating on him and the first time we see her “evidence,” he is trying to talk an amorous student off him.

In some ways, Terms Of Endearment is unfair to the female characters; Aurora is neurotic and Emma is rebellious, suspicious and ultimately a cheating wife, so there is a lot of moral ambiguity to the characters. In fact, Sam, the man Emma has the affair with, is almost characterized as noble for sticking with his crippled wife while he has an affair, whereas one interpretation of Terms Of Endearment would be that Emma’s illness is Fate biting her in the butt for her own infidelity.

That said, what makes Terms Of Endearment fun and worthwhile – not the obvious, overbearing annoying ?’s soundtrack through all the most poignant moments! – is the acting. Jack Nicholson appears as Garrett and this comedic turn actually prepares viewers for later roles like the one he had in As Good As It Gets. Clearly different from his McMurphy character, Garrett is a womanizer who actually seems to enjoy life and have some moments of depth to him. Nicholson plays the role with a wonderful sense of physical comedy as well as line deliveries that make the verbal humor work.

Similarly, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito (whose role is little more than a cameo) and John Lithgow all have decent supporting roles which allow them to do the best they can with the roles they are given. The one who shines, though, is Shirley MacLaine as Aurora. She is energetic as the character develops, but solemn through most of the film. MacLaine makes it easy for viewers to not like Aurora, but she plays the role of the protective mother without any of the shrill quality she possessed for Postcards From The Edge.

Unfortunately, the nature of the story rides Debra Winger a bit hard. Debra Winger looks young as Emma, disturbingly so in the movie’s earliest scenes. But the film jumps awkwardly into the future at intervals that take a moment or two for the viewer to catch up with. The problem is Winger does not age as the movie goes on a sufficient amount. Emma’s children grow up, Winger looks essentially as she did the day the first one was born. Her performance does not develop the character with any additional sense of maturity either. This becomes a problem the longer the film goes on, especially when Emma gets ill.

That said, Terms Of Endearment is a worthwhile film and it is a family drama the whole family may enjoy. Moreover, unlike some films that come later, the struggles in this movie are a bit simpler and more realistic, making it much more accessible. On DVD, Terms Of Endearment comes with a commentary track and the theatrical trailers for the film. It is more than enough for this drama, as the commentary track is remarkably thorough with the behind-the-scenes information on the movie.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project here! Please check it out!]

For other works with Danny DeVito, please check out my reviews of:
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia - Season 3
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia - Seasons 1 & 2
Big Fish
The Rainmaker
L.A. Confidential
Batman Returns


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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