Terms of Endearment (1983)
Release Date: December 9th, 1983 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: James L. Brooks Actors: Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jeff Daniels, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Danny DeVito, Lisa Hart Carroll, Betty R. King
oney, she’s not breathing! It’s crib death!” cries Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), exasperated at caring for her newborn. But, the child is merely sleeping. When that baby, Emma, grows up a little, she’s surprisingly mature. But Aurora hasn’t seemed to grow up yet herself, perhaps stunted by her husband’s death, resorting to asking the little girl if she can crawl in bed with her, due to eternal tension. And as an adult, Emma (Debra Winger) is still the more emotionally stable of the two, having to deal with her mother’s idiosyncrasies and nagging – which attempt to stifle the acknowledgement of Emma’s adulthood and upcoming marriage. Plus, Aurora harbors an obvious bitterness and distaste for just about everything, seemingly elevated by her loneliness, her prioritization of independence, and her unwillingness to remarry – even though she has a long list of suitors following her around (“Don’t worship me until I’ve earned it”).
“You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” Aurora’s frank spitefulness simply reenforces Emma’s insistence on marrying Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), a kind, loving man, but one who doesn’t have the career aspirations Mrs. Greenway desires for her daughter. In protest, Aurora even boycotts the wedding, though this hurtful act isn’t enough to stop the happy couple from being overjoyed with one another. And, shortly thereafter, when the Hortons announce their pregnancy at dinner, Aurora flies into a fit, annoyed at the thought of becoming a grandmother. “Going to your mother’s … it makes me a little irrational,” grumbles Flap.
As the picture zooms through two generations of the Greenway family, chronicling marriages, births, moves, career changes, and shifts in relationships, the one constant is Aurora’s disapproval of every decision made by her daughter – as well as Emma’s unflappable attitude in the face of continual discouragement. This journey is overflowing with heart and wit and Michael Gore’s upbeat ’80s musical compositions. The humor is natural, the characters are authentic, and the conflicts are genuine; “Terms of Endearment” is a little story, but it examines slice-of-life scenarios that are entirely relatable and human.
Even Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning turn as a cocky, boorish (hysterically so), womanizing former astronaut and souse isn’t so over-the-top that it doesn’t feel fitting. The many background roles are just as impressive in their subtleties (particularly John Lithgow and Danny DeVito), imparting the same honesty found throughout every scenario. And Winger is an absolute revelation, exhibiting the fears and flaws that sum up the cast’s remarkable grounding and realism. Her acting is simply flawless.
As matters of sex, parenting and discipline, money issues, marital arguments and paranoia about adultery, aging, education, health, romance, forgiveness, and taking chances arise, the narrative only grows more believable. However, with this attention to maintaining a certain earnestness, overflowing with small details and comic touches, the pacing tends to lag – even when laughs – or heartbreak – are abundant. Careful contemplations, casual reminiscing, and mellow remorse must frequently combat minuscule ups and downs – and even those are notably subdued. For this unhurried examination of a perfectly normal – if not exceptionally average – family, life isn’t made of the stuff for movies, even with its wealth of tough choices and heavy revelations toward the conclusion. Yet the performances all around are utterly sublime.
– Mike Massie