I fear that admitting to liking James L Brooks’ directorial debut Terms of Endearment is akin to professing admiration for Beaches: A film spanning the lifelong friendship between a mother and daughter ending with an emotional finale involving cancer sounds incredibly sappy, but if I could attempt to make this film cooler I would say that it’s blend of comedy and insightful character development is the logical conclusion to what Judd Apatow is doing with his career as his filmmaking becomes increasingly ‘serious’.
Shirley MacLaine plays Aurora Greenway, an over-protective mother bordering on the psychotic. As a widow she brings up her determinedly individualistic daughter Emma played by Debra Winger. Their lives splinter apart as Emma moves town with her new husband, Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), a college literature professor. Aurora, adamant that the marriage was a mistake, had boycotted the wedding and, somehow, Emma had forgiven her. Over the years, as Emma’s own family life becomes increasingly difficult, Aurora gets a new lease on life as she gets courted by her neighbour Garrett Breedlove, an exceedingly sleazy and unkempt retired astronaut played by Jack Nicholson.
What really makes this film worth watching is the lack of sentimentality. This is very surprising for a film that features a cancer finale but the film never flinches from the failings of its characters, every potentially sentimental moment is undercut with humour and full reconciliation is never on the cards. Take for example the first date between Aurora and Garrett: After displaying contempt for each other, Garrett ends up having fallen into the sea. Aurora lets her guard down to attend to him and they end up embracing on the beach. What seems like a life-affirming moment for Aurora as she learns to connect romantically with another man comes undone when Garrett overeagerly goes for the breast grab. But the film is most wise in its acknowledgement that with the undying bonds of family there is simultaneously constant conflict. This is, perhaps, Judd Apatow’s weakness: His two films to date have ended with the characters learning Big Life Lessons and resolving all their conflicts to live happily ever after. In Terms of Endearment, Aurora never completely lets go of her contempt for Flap but in Knocked Up Seth Rogen’s character wins the approval of his sister-in-law.
Terms of Endearment is a sprawling film, fairly untypical of an American movie. It sounds like sacrilege, but the way time passes in Terms of Endearment the best way I can describe it is Edward Yang’s Yi Yi meets Knocked Up. Is the cancer ending manipulative? I don’t think so. It descends on the film the same way illness descends on the living: out of the blue. It changes the game but doesn’t really resolve the differences that have arisen between the characters over the years. Having won the 1983 Academy Award for best picture, I wish that Hollywood was still making Oscar-bait like this.