May 12, 2011
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Grade: 62/100

Director: James L. Brooks
Stars: Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson

What it's about. Set circa 1967 to 1982. Raspy-voiced brunette hottie Debra Winger marries cute college professor Jeff Daniels over the objections of her regal, stubborn, outspoken mother, Shirley MacLaine. Daniels takes Winger from Houston to Iowa, then to Nebraska, to further his career, yet Winger barely makes ends meet while raising their three young children.

Daniels apparently has a string of apparently meaningless affairs, while Winger has a more charming liaison of her own with nice guy bank loan officer John Lithgow. Meanwhile, back in Houston, MacLaine fends off would-be suitors Danny DeVito and some tall dull guy whose name I didn't catch, in favor of Jack Nicholson, the alcoholic womanizer astronaut boy next door.

Daniels career progression will inevitably be to Dean of a hundred student college in Yankton, South Dakota, but before we reach that point, Winger gets the Big C. She has just enough time to separately deliver tearjerker farewells to hubby, mother, children, best friend, and the family dog. I made the last part up.

As the film's producer, James L. Brooks was able to choose who would write and direct the movie. He chose himself, and chose wisely.

How others will see it. The critics fawned over Terms of Endearment. It won five Oscars, all in prestigious categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (MacLaine, not Winger), best adapted screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson, whose bad boy act never grows old with Academy voters).

Why did the film have such critical success? The stellar cast had much to do with it, but I suspect Larry McMurtry came up with the key ingredient: the title. If the book and movie were instead called, A Married Couple Cheats on Each Other and It's All the Husband's Fault, or perhaps, I Don't Care How Obnoxious He Is, He's an Astronaut, then prospective viewers would grasp how mundane the story actually is.

Today, the movie remains reasonably popular, helped by its slew of Academy awards. At, the user ratings are consistently very high among adult viewers, yet ultimately unspectacular compared with, for example, The Godfather: Part II. Women like the movie more, probably due to its focus on relationships and its plum roles for the two female leads.

How I felt about it. Terms of Endearment was the breakout feature film for James L. Brooks, who began his career as a writer for television. He then had considerable success as a television producer, which continues to this day with "The Simpsons." After the great critical and commercial success of our present film, Brooks continued to make other acclaimed films, notably Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, both of which also had roles for his rabbit foot actor, Jack Nicholson.

Admittedly, Terms of Endearment is a good movie. It didn't merit any of its Oscars, but it was better than many Best Picture winners. However, having seen it a few times, it does prove the maxim "Familiarity breeds contempt."

For example, dark clouds suddenly engulf the WTC towers in shots a few seconds apart. And if Debra Winger is going to travel to New York, perhaps she should visit cancer specialists there, instead of simply relying upon those in Lincoln, Nebraska. She should also try cough drops, because her voice always sounds like she cheered for three hours at a Cornhuskers game the day before.

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