Terms of Endearment (1983)
Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito. Written by James L. Brooks (based on the novel by Larry McMurtry). Directed by James L. Brooks.
If you don’t know already that Terms of Endearment is a tear-jerker, I’ve just spoiled that aspect for you, but that’s all I’ll spoil. I swear. It’s all I knew about the film, aside from its status as a beloved, decorated movie based on a novel by Larry McMurtry. I almost forgot that as I laughed my way through the first half, but of course it was always kind of hanging over everything, so that the laughter felt borrowed, like collateral against what I know is coming, even though I didn’t really know what was coming.
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson are wonderful, Nicholson at his brashest and crassest, MacLaine at her most uptight and most mischievous. In the years following this film, Nicholson often played characters who were exaggerations of this persona, so it’s nice to see it at what I imagine is peak Nicholson. MacLaine, too, seems to have been given over-the-top, eccentric old-lady roles based on her character here (with the most notable exception her great work in Bernie), and it’s possible this is peak MacLaine as well. Their back-and-forth by itself is worth the rental price.
The Nicholson-MacLaine dynamic relegates Debra Winger to supporting status, even though she’s really the central actress. Her relationship with her mother seems to be the center of the film, but I had difficulty figuring Winger’s character out. It’s difficult to figure out why she does the things she does, and the story doesn’t convince us enough one way or another whether it’s because of her mother, because of her husband (Jeff Daniels), or because of a quirky, free-spirit personality. It’s really the film’s weakness, and it’s a disappointment because Winger herself is quite good.
Here’s a mini shout-out to John Lithgow, whose pathetic bank manager character is so well performed that I wanted to see a movie about him and his family.
Terms of Endearment is a good movie, totally worth seeing again and possibly again for its solid performances and the joy of Nicholson and MacLaine. Its problem is that it toys with greatness and doesn’t give enough of an effort to get there.