Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Terms of Endearment (1983)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - Come to Laugh, Come to Cry, Come to Care, Come to Terms.

Terms Of Endearment dazzled critics and audiences alike with its believable, insightful story of two captivating people, mother and daughter, unforgettably played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. From grand slapstick to deepest sentiment, director James L. Brooks masterfully paints scenes from their evolving 30-year relationship.

Jack Nicholson turns in a great comic performance as Maclaine's neighbor, a boozy, womanizing former astronaut.

Winner of five Academy Awards®: Best Picture 1983; Best Actress - Shirley MacLaine; Best Supporting Actor - Jack Nicholson; Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptation - James L. Brooks.

Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow
Academy Awards: Won for Best Pictures; Best Director; Best Actress-Shirley MacLaine; Best Supporting Actor-Jack Nicholson; Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Actress-Debra Winger; Best Supporting Actor-John Lithgow; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Film Editing; Best Sound; Best Score-Michael Gore. 1984.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Restored Mono, French Mono; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 16 chapters; rated PG; 131 min.; $29.99; street date 4/10/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Director James L. Brooks, Co-Producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and Production Designer Polly Platt; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/C+

As I write this, one-third of 2001 has officially ended, and so far, it’s been a very interesting year for DVDs. Not only have we seen some terrific releases of long-awaited titles like Lawrence of Arabia, but plenty more - like the Superman series - are on their way.

One unusual aspect of 2001 stems from the strange, apparently coincidental “themes” we’ve seen in DVD releases. From March 6’s The Greatest Story Ever Told through April 3’s LOA and Cleopatra, we had a month in which a slew of big name “epics” and other older classics like Rear Window made their initial DVD appearances. The rest of April boasts a quieter profile, but another theme seems apparent as women are getting their due. Just in time for Mother’s Day, April offers a string of estrogen-heavy hits.

Although some of the others - most notably 1990’s Ghost - were bigger hits, none of these female favorites boasts a stronger rosters of rewards than 1983’s Terms Of Endearment. While Ghost, 1988’s Working Girl and 1979’s Norma Rae were nominated for Best Picture, TOE was the only of these April releases to actually take home the prize. It also snagged four other Oscars, including Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson.

When TOE took home so many statues back then, 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, TOE was 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, TOE covers a roughly ten-year time frame in the lives of widowed mother Aurora (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). She 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; 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; 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 TOE; 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 (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 TOE 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, TOE 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, I felt that too much of MacLaine’s performance fell into the “diva!” category. Her acting could be a bit too showy for the role, and at times it seemed as though she was really working 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 there was great depth to her performance. Emma simply seems tired and put-upon throughout the film, so even when she’s supposed to be brighter or cheerier, Winger didn’t come across that way. She and MacLaine exhibited decent chemistry but there wasn’t much that made me believe the bond between the two.

Nicholson’ casting was 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 added spark to the production and made it more enjoyable.

As Flap, 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, 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 TOE 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, TOE 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; he discusses the hypocrisy during the DVD’s audio commentary. However, his position seems to be quickly dismissed, as the double standard remains in effect. TOE 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.

On a different note, one surprising aspect of TOE stems from its language. Although the movie was rated “PG”, it boasts at least three uses of the “F”-word. TOE predated the existence of “PG-13” by a little less than a year, and it might gain that rating today, but the general rule is that more than one “f***” gets you an “R”. How in the world TOE got away with so many is a mystery to me, but the ratings board has always been lenient with certain kinds of films, and the generally gentle nature of TOE likely allowed it to slip through with the less-restrictive ranking.

Interestingly, Brooks misremembers the number of “F”-words in the film; he comments upon their one “f***” at a certain point, but this was actually the final use of it. Again, I didn’t keep track of its usage, but I’m sure it cropped up at least three times.

In any case, Terms Of Endearment isn’t the sort of movie that really focuses on profanity, so one can be excused for not noticing this side of the tale. Ultimately, the movie functions as an almost-prototypical “chick flick” which consists mainly of strong female characters and the mildly-slimy men for whom they care. At times, it offers an enjoyable diversion, and fans of the genre will clearly embrace it, but too much of it seemed forced and awkward for my liking. Terms Of Endearment is well-made weepy corn, but it’s still corn nonetheless.

The DVD:

Terms Of Endearment appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found the picture to be a bit of a mixed bag. While significant portions of the film looked crystal-clear, many other scenes came across as less than terrific, all of which made for a generally good but erratic viewing experience.

Sharpness usually seemed nicely crisp and detailed. Modest softness could interfere with some parts of the film, but these instances were fairly minor. As such, the movie mostly looked well-defined and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no problems, but print flaws were a periodic concern. Much of the film passed without any defects, but some scenes betrayed more than their fair share of faults. Light grain appeared at times, and a mix of speckles and grit also cropped up on occasion. Again, some sequences suffered more than others, but the flaws never became intense. Nonetheless, they could be pretty distracting at times and caused the major concerns I had with the image.

Colors displayed some signs of the blandness that seems to plague films from the Eighties, but for the most part they seemed fairly vivid and accurate. At times the hues could appear quite lovely, as TOE features some bright and attractive pastel tones. As a whole, however, the colors just looked pretty good; they displayed few special characteristics but they managed to be effective and solid. Black levels seemed adequately deep and rich, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. While much of TOE really looked terrific, enough of it was average to bring my overall grade down to a still-positive “B”.

Similar thoughts related to the film’s new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Adapted from the original monaural mix - which also appears on the DVD - we find an appropriately restrained soundfield. The forward channels displayed some modest spread to effects, as I heard occasional ambient sounds on the sides. These also appeared in the rear speakers as well, and the whole package created a fairly solid little surround sensation.

However, note that there’s very little genuinely discrete audio to be heard, at least in regard to the effects. The mix seemed to stick to vague ambient audio and little more. In an odd way, it felt like a “real world” version of the hum heard on the bridge in Star Trek.

On the other hand, the score presented a much better-defined affair. It displayed fine stereo imaging throughout the entire film, and at times it spread effectively to the surrounds as well. The best example of this occurred when Emma went to New York; as she first sees to the Big Apple, the music really took over the mix and became quite impressive. As a whole, however, the soundfield stayed pretty close to it mono roots, which is fine with me; it’s not as though TOE is the kind of film that would benefit from an active mix.

Audio quality seemed a little spotty at times but the movie generally sounded good for its age. Dialogue usually appeared a bit thin but relatively warm, with no problems related to intelligibility. Some distortion manifested itself at times; this was most noticeable during the waterfront scenes with MacLaine and Nicholson. For the most part, however, the mix appeared to be free of these kinds of problems, as I noticed no edginess in the music or effects. The latter were generally a minor aspect of the mix, and they seemed acceptably clear and realistic, though they lacked much range.

Music functioned quite well, as Michael Gore’s score appeared nicely bright and vibrant throughout the movie. The score even displayed some modest but engaging low end at times. Without the fairly high quality of the music, TOE would have earned a more average grade, but since the score sounded so good, I raised my rating to a “B”.

Terms Of Endearment contains only one major supplement. In addition to the movie’s original theatrical trailer, we find a running audio commentary from director James L. Brooks, co-producer Penney Finkelman Cox, and production designer Polly Platt. All three were recorded together for this screen-specific piece. Not surprisingly, Brooks dominates the track, as he provides the lion’s share of remarks. The two women kick in with some statements from time to time, and they help spur Brooks’ memory when he slips, but as a whole, it’s Brooks’ baby.

For the most part, the commentary provided a somewhat spotty but decent look at the creation of the film. We hear some good anecdotes about the production and get a nice general idea of what went on behind the scenes. At times, too much of the track passes without any statements, a tendency that grows toward the end of the film. During the final act, all three - but especially the women - seem to get caught up in the action and forget to speak. Actually, although this makes for a dull stretch, it was fairly sweet to hear the women get as emotional as they do. In any case, fans of TOE will probably enjoy the commentary, though objectively it’s only average.

Frankly, that would be my overall rating for Terms Of Endearment as a film. It’s a fairly well-made effort, but I didn’t think it did much that made it special, and I really don’t believe it deserved all of the Academy Awards it garnered. The DVD offers pretty solid picture and sound plus a decent audio commentary. Terms Of Endearment did little for me, but fans of this kind of relationship piece will likely enjoy it.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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