Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 11, 2021)
When 1983’s Terms of Endearment took home the Best Picture Academy Award, I thought it was a travesty since I felt The Right Stuff clearly presented the stronger film. Many years later, I still feel the same way.
For the most part, Terms boasts a fairly well-executed and compelling affair, but it’s good at best. I don’t understand how anyone thought this was the stuff for which Oscars are awarded.
For the most part, Terms covers a roughly ten-year time frame in the lives of widowed Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). We briefly glimpse Emma as an infant, and we also see a few minutes of her life as a child and teenager, but the vast majority of the film looks at her adulthood.
About five minutes into the flick, we go to the night before Emma’s wedding, and the remainder of the movie details her life and relationship with her mother.
They’re a prickly pair, as Aurora is quickly shown to be extremely overbearing. She disapproves of Emma’s choice of mate, though we don’t really learn why she so dislikes young college professor Flap (Jeff Daniels).
Aurora also basks in the adoration of many suitors, but she never gives in to any of their requests. Instead, she simply seems to keep them around her as a reminder of her never-ending charm.
Early in the movie, it looks like a serious rift will develop between Emma and her mother, as Aurora’s disdain for Flap leads her to skip her daughter’s wedding. However, this becomes nothing more than a minor speedbump that quickly disappears from the story.
Mother and daughter often disagree, but we see little that continues to tie them together other than familiarity. At times Emma seems to dislike her mother - as she should, since Aurora’s an aggravating windbag - but she maintains a very close and chummy relationship with her despite all of her mother’s provocations.
Of course, there are plenty of families like that, so I don’t even know if I’d call the occasionally-strained relationship between Aurora and Emma unusual. However, I found the film irritating at times because it so neatly glossed over their problems.
There should have been more of an indication of the down time in between big incidents, whereas we just see the flare-ups and never get a grip on how the two reconcile their differences.
I think that’s my main problem with Terms, as it feels like a “greatest hits” reel of Emma’s adult life. The characters grow, but not in a natural manner.
Aurora remains stiff and distant until she succumbs to the charms of long-time neighbor Garrett (Jack Nicholson). A womanizing former astronaut, Aurora imagines that she’s too dignified and ladylike for this brassy dude, but after she realizes how long she’s gone without sex, she opens herself to his possibilities. After some testy moments, a whirlwind romance ensues, and Aurora brightens considerably.
I won’t cover all of the material we see in Terms because it might ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It doesn’t feature a true plot, as it instead concentrates on the life developments that occur within that decade or so.
All at once, Terms seems too short and too long. It doesn’t take enough time to truly develop the characters.
Aurora changes her personality far too quickly within screen time. Sure, the movie proceeds over a fairly long span of “real time”, but in this instance, the alterations occur in rapid-fire succession.
Of course, those changes make it easier for MacLaine to provide her grand “acting”. Truth in journalism: I never have been able to stand the woman.
This isn’t due to any true faults as a performer, as she definitely possesses a great deal of talent. However, I just find her to be an annoying personality, and much of that tone carries over to her work here.
Actually, MacLaine’s general obnoxiousness works well for the character, since Aurora is supposed to be an irritating prig. Nonetheless, too much of MacLaine’s performance falls into the “diva!” category.
Her acting could feel a bit too showy for the role, and at times it seems as though she really worked to show us her skills instead of allowing them to escape naturally.
Winger displays a more believable presence as Emma, though I also didn’t feel we found great depth in her performance. Emma simply seems tired and put-upon throughout the film, so even when she’s supposed to be brighter or cheerier, Winger doesn’t come across that way. She and MacLaine exhibit decent chemistry but there doesn’t become much that makes me believe the bond between the two.
Nicholson’ casting became a serious coup for the producers, as his presence allowed men to more willing see the film. With a less devilish actor in the role, guys would be averse to this kind of flick, but many probably surmised that if Jack was in it, then it must be okay!
Nicholson indeed provides some of the movie’s best moments. He does little that we haven’t already seen, as Jack is always best at playing Jack. Still, his turn as the roguish Garrett adds spark to the production and makes it more enjoyable.
As the film’s fourth lead, Daniels takes on easily the most thankless and difficult role of the piece. He has to try to make Flap realistic and sympathetic but since he functions as the nominal villain of the movie, so he can’t create a character who becomes too likable.
For the most part, Daniels succeeds, though I would have preferred a less spineless personality. He seems totally self-obsessed and directionless, and Daniels doesn’t give him much backbone.
However, I think much of this wasn’t Daniels’ fault, as in this kind of semi-feminist setting, a character of this sort isn’t allowed to be much more than the token bum. Indeed, one of my greatest complaints with Terms stems from its self-congratulatory “sisters are doing it for themselves” tone.
Men are treated poorly in this kind of flick in which they function as little more than unreliable and self-centered appendages. Even Garrett is offered little room for growth and is shown as a jellyfish in comparison with the wealth of strong female participants.
In that vein, Terms is yet another movie in which male adultery is condemned while female adultery supported. When Flap cheats on Emma, he’s made into a villain, and his side of things - which receives little coverage - never is allowed to show any validity. However, when Emma has her own fling, we’re led to see her as gentle and loving, and we never are meant to feel any negativity toward her for her actions.
You can’t have it both ways. To his credit, director James L. Brooks seems to recognize this, at least in retrospect, as he discusses the hypocrisy during the disc’s audio commentary.
However, his position seems to be quickly dismissed, as the double standard remains in effect. Terms isn’t alone in this category, and at least its story semi-provokes the woman to cheat, unlike more disgusting examples such as The English Patient. Nonetheless, the theme continues to bother me.
Even without that issue, Terms would end up as a well-made but not great melodrama. It does enough to keep us with it across its running time but it never quite excels.