May 1, 2009

Terms of Endearment

** ½ out of ****

In 1983, “Terms of Endearment” clenched the Academy Award for Best Picture. Perhaps to the Academy, “Terms of Endearment” is a poignant, heart-wrenching drama that beautifully depicts a mother/daughter relationship over the course of thirty or so years. To me, however, it is a sappy, run-of-the-mill picture that is held together only by strong performances and occasionally absorbing sequences. This film does not feel like a “Best Picture” to me in the way that a similar film that preceded it by three years, “Ordinary People,” does. “Terms of Endearment” is an occasionally charming, often sentimental film, but in general, with its little real artistic weight, it feels as fluffy as the popcorn you chow down while watching it. (And it is for this reason that I find the selection of James L. Brooks over Ingmar Bergman (for “Fanny and Alexander”) for “Best Director” more than a little reprehensible.)

One of my biggest problems with the film is its insistence on crosscutting between characters, which makes it hard to attach too strongly to either of them. For a film about the bond between a domineering mother and her rebellious daughter who wants a life of her own, it barely bonds to the characters. In addition, the plot seems to lack a conclusive direction until over ninety minutes into the film, when viewers finally realize where the film is really going. Because of this weakness, it seems that the final scenes of the film become cheap shots at belated attachment and sentimentality. Indeed, it is only at the end of the film that Debra Winger’s performance as the daughter, Emma, really begins to shine through. I spent most of the film ambivalent toward her performance (and more than a little annoyed by her cackling laugh), but her role at the end of the film reveals a strength which really solidifies her character and which I feel was missing otherwise.

However, the scenes between Aurora and Garrett are perhaps the best in the film, and the scene where the two race his silver Corvette across the beach is perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Indeed, one could call Shirley MacLaine’s and Jack Nicholson’s performances the real heart and soul of the film, for it is through their roles that I derive the most enjoyment as a viewer. MacLaine deserved her Oscar for playing control freak Aurora Greenway, a woman who has tried to dominate her daughter since her birth, fears falling for her “arrogant, self-centered, and somewhat entertaining” neighbor, Garrett, and amusingly detests the sound of the word “Grandma.” Her compatriot, Jack Nicholson, as ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove, plays a role that seems closer than most of his other celebrated roles to his own off-screen persona—that of a devilish, hedonist womanizer with a penchant for dark sunglasses. However, he remains enjoyable nonetheless, and, of course, perhaps playing yourself is the easiest role of all.

To the tune of Michael Gore’s memorable score, “Terms of Endearment” is, all in all, a treat for those looking for “a good cry” and mindless entertainment guided by emotion. However, it falls short in real artistic merit and exposes director Brooks’ amateurish, television-styled undertaking (something to which he was accustomed, having created and produced television shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” and “Taxi”). However, “Terms of Endearment” has its own magical qualities that save it from complete mediocrity. For example, the film succeeds with the strong performances of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson (and, to some extent, Debra Winger). So, indeed, “Best Actress” and “Best Supporting Actor,” but “Best Picture” or “Best Director”? I do not agree.

No comments: