TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. Directed, written and produced by James L. Brooks for Paramount. Starring Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. Rated PG (minimal offensive language).
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It's worth remembering as Christmas approaches that good things come in small packages. Terms is a "small" movie by any standards. There is no sweeping story or cast of thousands. But it's a gem.
Interesting things happen to the characters in this story, but the people themselves are more important than the plot.
Terms is mainly about being a mother and a daughter. However, it's also about being a wife, husband, child, grandmother, friend and lover.
It's about a world where things don't always work out the way we'd like, where there's no guarantee of a happy ending.
There is a lot of humor, and pathos as well. But neither is contrived. They both come from real life.
Aurora (MacLaine) and Emma (Winger) are the exceptionally close mother and daughter who are the focus of the movie. Their personalities could hardly be more different—they're almost always arguing—but their bond is unmistakable.
Emma is open, uncomplicated and "easy to please." We can feel comfortable with her and identify with her immediately. She makes being "only" a housewife and mother not only respectable, but almost poetic.
Aurora is much harder to figure out. She's eccentric and proper at the same time and always speaks her mind.
The plot switches between the two women a lot, describing their contrasting styles and similar experiences. This alternation is a little unsettling at first, but it serves a purpose in fleshing out the interdependent relationship of Emma and Aurora.
The last third of Terms (the "sad" section) might be a little long. People who don't like to cry or listen to others who do will certainly think so. But even this part has a realistic mix of humor and sadness.
Nicholson's appearance in a movie like this is a real departure from his usual "type" characters. He does some leering and mugging in Terms, but it's mostly entertaining self-parody.
There is a surprising core of decency and caring in his ex-astronaut Breedlove. As Aurora says at one point, "Who'd have thought you'd be a nice guy?" Certainly, not me, but it's a pleasant surprise.
The entire case is almost perfect. But Winger is the center of things and she's truly wonderful.
In a movie whose plot consists of "ordinary" happenings, some of them tragic, maudlin sentimentality always threatens to take over. But that it rarely, if ever, does in Terms is due largely to Winger.
Emma is so down-to-earth and together, she keeps everything in perspective for her family and for us.
We can be glad that Winger is young. She'll be creating characters like Emma and films like Terms well into the next century.
That's really something to look forward to!
November 30, 1983