Terms of Endearment swept the 1983 Academy Awards as a “successful Mainstream American weepie” (Schneider) that combines comedy, fun, romance, and tears into a two-hour thirty-year mother-daughter spectacle. Based on the novel by Larry McMurty, this film features some top-notch performances. While I enjoyed it, it was overly sentimental and melodramatic and times. I wanted to scoff at Joanna Berry’s suggestion that it is a “tearjerker of the highest order” and “keep(s) sickly sentiment at bay.” Some of the directorial decisions made me ‘meh’ quite a bit, even though as a whole it is a fantastic ensemble piece that is carried by the acting much more than the script and unfortunate editing choices.
After watching this film, I decided that I loved the idea of it, but the execution of it was all wrong. The primary thing I have with it is that it was a huge missed opportunity for the director and screenwriter in terms of what my expectations of the piece are from a storytelling standpoint, and it was the performances of the actors that carried this disjointed and sometimes ridiculously melodramatic piece. That is somewhat of a tragedy since the time that we are watching this film is exactly the time of my life I am living – it had a lot of potential in terms of the emotional and mental position of as an audience member, but when the end came (and I knew it was coming) my reaction was a simple, “well, that’s sad for them,” some more disjointed scenes, and then roll credits. I mean, I should feel like I am just like Jeff Daniels’ character in age, profession, stress, fatherhood, etc, but honestly, I found myself caring for and identifying more with Garrett… because who else would you want to be? Besides, we share a name (don’t even get me started on the heavy-handed use of aptronym).
To begin, the transitions in the film were so off that I found myself wondering how much time had gone by and whether or not characters were even still in a relationship at all. In one scene, Emma is drinking wine and moving out of their house, and in the next she is six months pregnant, but they aren’t unpacked yet and there was nothing in the transition that suggests any time went by at all. In another, Emma leaves forever and is happy, and a week (or month, or six months) goes by, but in the next scene it appears she actually wasn’t leaving forever and it has only been a few days. And what’s with Danny DeVito?
The dramatic moments are sometimes too much, and sometimes things that should be too much are shaken off by Emma’s character with a joke and a titter. This says a lot about her character, in a good way, but the elemental overarching fall-to-the-floor crying and devastation was never convincing to me. Nor were the characterization and lines of Flap and Aurora as well. Was Flap cheating? The movie ended and I was convinced he wasn’t until he said in the hospital room… but he didn’t really say he was, he just said it was an issue in their relationship. What? Honestly, this might just be an editing issue, but I was confused, and that made me care less at the end.
Now, the thing about the film is that while I think the story could be told a lot better (this movie had some great scenes, but it would essentially be The World According to Garp if The World According to Garp sucked, but I am convinced that the book is a great deal better because the medium matches this kind of disjointedness and it would make sense), it is the performances that truly carry this film. MacLaine, Nicholson, Winger, and Daniels were stellar, and they took a script and a concept and embodied the complexity of characters that may not have had that complexity on the page.
That says a lot about Hollywood and casting decisions as a whole. That even with a bad script, one can make a touching and believable movie with the right ensemble, and that is what you have here. I can forget about the parts I didn’t like, but I won’t forget what I saw come out of the actors. They believed their roles, they embodied them, and it was real.
Two last things. While my opinions may not be popular, the commerciality of the flick without a clear handle on the execution is best summed up with The fact that a sequel followed it up thirteen years later that lost $8 million – that the production wouldn’t work without the same cast, even if everything else was the same. Second…The opening scene? I laughed for ten minutes… Dads and husbands, take note.