Artistically speaking, “The Evening Star” is to “Terms of Endearment” what “Texasville” was to “The Last Picture Show,” a vastly disappointing sequel to a superlative original. As scripted and directed by Robert Harling, this three-generational meller about the neuroses of an extended family has subplots, characters, thesps – and mushy sentiments – fitting a TV soap or miniseries, though not enough substance or quality for one good feature. Still, considering the popularity of the 1983 Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment,” the film should generate sufficient curiosity for a reasonably strong opening – until the cumulative effect of mixed-to-negative reviews and lukewarm word of mouth send the picture to the video bin.
James L. Brooks’ masterly touch as writer and director and Debra Winger’s edgy presence are very much missing from “The Evening Star,” a film that in sensibility, structure – and basic flaws – bears more resemblance to “Steel Magnolias,” which was also scripted by Harling, than to “Terms of Endearment.”
The primary elements that hitch together the 1983 pic and its sequel are Shirley MacLaine’s obnoxious/charming overbearing matron and her resolutely bad taste in clothes (here designed with great flair by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus).
Pic is set in l988, 15 years after the first film ended, with Aurora Greenway (MacLaine) still defiant and perky. But instead of having one complex relationship with one reverent daughter, Emma (Winger), she now has complex relationships with three troubled grandchildren. Melanie (Juliette Lewis) may be the most level-headed and driven of the trio, but she has a history of choosing “bad men,” detested by Aurora with the same bile she felt for her son-in-law. Melanie’s current beau, Bruce (TV’s “Party of Five” heartthrob Scott Wolf) is handsome but selfish, concerned chiefly with his modeling career while Melanie works as a waitress to support his lofty ambitions.
Middle grandchild Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) lacks ambition and, what’s more, produces a baby out of wedlock with his g.f., Jane (China Kantner); Aurora labels the boy “monstrous.” Then there’s the eldest, Tommy (George Newbern), who’s serving time in prison on a drug charge. Guilty about not having raised her grandchildren to be “upstanding citizens,” Aurora visits Tommy in jail regularly with a batch of homemade cookies, which he dumps into the garbage right in front her.
Not much more comfort comes from Aurora’s tempestuous, on-off relationship with arch-enemy Patsy (Miranda Richardson), Emma’s best friend. And while housekeeper-companion Rosie (Marion Ross) provides some emotional stability, she leaves Aurora after decades of service to marry Arthur (Ben Johnson), their old, gentlemanly neighbor.
A temporary joy is offered by Jerry Bruckner (Bill Paxton), a much younger shrink whom Aurora reluctantly visits and ends up having an affair with – only to realize that he’s been bedding Patsy. In one of the movie’s few genuinely humorous moments, Aurora shows up for a luncheon date with Patsy wearing the latter’s yellow belt, which she found under Jerry’s bed.
One waits with anticipation for Aurora’s former suitor, ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) to show up. And, indeed, in the very last sequence he turns up – for exactly five minutes. But, alas, even Garrett can’t pump energy into the proceedings, which at this late point have sunk to irredeemable tedium. Saddled with embarrassing lines, which he has to deliver while gazing at the stars, Nicholson (who won a 1983 supporting Oscar for his role) looks ill at ease.
MacLaine is decent and overacts only occasionally. The tension that prevailed between her and Winger – as characters and actresses – is absent here. Instead, we get a domineering woman who tiresomely moves from one episode to another and then, exhausted, retires to her bedroom to look at her photo albums. Under the guise of Aurora organizing a chronicle, pic shamelessly subjects the audience to snapshots and mementos from “Terms of Endearment,” yet another reminder of the superiority of Brooks’ film.
Neophyte helmer Harling displays an erratic comic touch that can’t conceal the shallow quality of the material. Many scenes are off-key, moving to a far slower and graver tempo than necessary. Periodically, Harling imbues the vignettes with a campy sensibility, particularly in the catty rivalry between Aurora and Patsy. A tasteless brawl between the grand dames (on an airplane, no less) brings to mind the equally disgraceful one between MacLaine and Anne Bancroft in “The Turning Point.”
The thesps playing the grandchildren and their respective mates are pale. The good moments in “The Evening Star,” which amount to no more than a fraction of the unjustifiably lengthy movie, belong to the cast’s older members: Richardson, as the elegant nemesis Patsy; Donald Moffat, as a retired general and Aurora’s former beau; and Johnson, in his final role, as the kind neighbor.
Tech credits are not as polished as one would expect from a major studio release. Don Burgess’ bright-color lensing and Bruno Rubeo’s production design are OK, but Priscilla Nedd-Friendly and David Moritz’s editing, so crucial to the fragmented narrative, is often choppy and abrupt.
Pic is dedicated to the late Ben Johnson, who won a 1971 supporting Oscar for “The Last Picture Show,” also based on a Larry McMurtry novel.