Teaming of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson at their best makes “Terms of Endearment” an enormously enjoyable offering for Christmas, adding bite and sparkle when sentiment and seamlessness threatens to sink other parts of the picture.
It’s a double pleasure to see Nicholson back in just the kind of role that catapulted him to stardom, playing a devilish, boozing astronaut who lives next door to MacLaine who has overlayed her libido with too many years of stifled feelings for everyone.
As writer and director, James L. Brooks has not made too clear what “Terms” is supposed to be about and, most of the time, it seems to be about too much, setting up situations and then skipping out of them as it tries to compress 30 years of a family relationship.
At the core is mother MacLaine and daughter Debra Winger, fondly at odds from the beginning over the younger’s impending marriage to likeable, but limited, Jeff Daniels. Literally, it’s just one cut to the next; then Winger is a mother and moving away from Texas to Iowa, where she becomes a mother a couple of more times, talks to MacLaine every day, carries on an affair with John Lithgow while Daniels dallies at college with Kate Charleson.
Plotwise, MacLaine and Nicholson are first introduced as she watches him come home next door drunk. Then it’s several more years before the film finds them together again as he makes a stumbling pass at her over the fence. Then it’s several more years before they’re together again and she finally agrees to go out to lunch.
If that seems disjointed, it is. But the encounters between these two–always reminiscent of Hepburn and Bogart–are so much fun, it really doesn’t make much difference. And when their romance starts to warm up, they are terrific and continue to be when it cools down and ripens into something else.
When they’re missing from the action, Brooks has even more trouble concentrating on other single aspects of the picture, finally getting trapped into an overlong, lingering involvement with the sadness that finally befalls the characters. But tears will flow, no doubt.
Forgetting structure, though, Brooks’ dialog is wonderful throughout and all the characters carry off their assignments beautifully, even down to Danny De Vito and Norman Bennett as MacLaine’s other suffering suitors.
Production designer Polly Platt and makeup artist Ben Nye, Jr. make the 30-year time stretch completely acceptable, enhanced naturally by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s camerawork. And ably at the controls of all of this, to be sure, is Brooks the director.
Early on, MacLaine tells Winger, “You aren’t special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” But “Terms of Endearment” is certainly special enough to overcome its own problems.