Monday, August 17, 2009

Terms of Endearment (1983)

By Eric Jessen 8/17/09

Terms of Endearment is the perfect “spiders stratagem.” It's a well refined lie, a remarkable unprecedented achievement in manipulation. Director James L. Brooks weaves a web of enviable humanity and catches the audience blindsided in a puddle of tears, rubbing their eyes and forced to remark, “I can relate to those characters.” To admit that it is a tearjerker, and worthy of winning best picture, is to acknowledge that it was extremely well executed and has many dupes.
Terms of Endearment pokes and prods at our emotions with calculated precision (Micheal Gore's score assaults our tear ducts relentlessly). It tickles our funny bone with a touch of slapstick: when Shirley MacLaine, as the mid-50's mother, slips and falls while ogling Jack Nicholson, her impressionable neighbor, or when Nicholson's hand gets stuck in MacLaine's bra. It also has quick wit that walks a fine line of biting without leaving teeth marks. But Terms of Endearment mostly relies on humor defined by the characters' persona: MacLaine as Aurora is funny in embarrassment when her childish mom-paranoia and dilapidated overly proper libido are exposed. Nicholson plays Garret Breedlove with non-threatening drunkenness and potbelly charm. Debra Winger, as Aurora's daughter Emma, is endearing with her dorky crackle-laugh and a baby producing machine earthiness. The actors, including Jeff Daniels as Emma's innocent, simple-minded husband, and John Lithgow as a understanding adulterer, all rise above the film's pink gloss. Their wonderful performances make the film watchable for anyone, including non-dupes.
But back to the issue at hand. Terms of Endearment masks itself as honorable, honest, genuine benevolent empathy. It pretends to show “real” people in their true form, encountering love and sadness unexpectedly through life's spontaneity. But the film mistakes the natural unpredictable movement of life for over-eager shabby jumping. It starts with Emma's birth, then leaps to marriage, then to disease, then to death. And the characters, though lovable, reflect an ideal, made for TV bunch. They have only virtues and adorable good hearted faults. We'd all like to believe that our worst quality is that we care too much, or that we're too protective of our children.
James L. Brooks panders to the audience by depicting characters that, no matter what, are innocent, living in the world that's sometimes inexplicably harsh. Nicholson as Breedlove drinks but only enough to bang his head once and act funny. Aurora is stern but not enough to turn any men away. And then all of a sudden there's Emma's cancer. It comes so abruptly and in such an uninspired way, as if to say “Gotcha! See how unpredictable life can be?” I guess I'm supposed to think, “Wow, I hope I'm not taking my loved ones for granted.” But instead I'm thinking, is this all they could think of? It's true, cancer does unexpectedly kill in real life. But in Terms of Endearment James L. Brooks' use of that fact is grotesquely exploitive. He intends to start the waterworks and have word get around, sending flocks of semi-masochistic, stressed women in need of a cry, to the theater.
And yet I'll admit, Terms of Endearment is an effective trick, tolerable for a non-dupe because of its great performances. I'm proud to say I sat through the ending and never shed a tear. Maybe I have a heart that's cold as ice, or perhaps I saw through Terms of Endearment's web of masterful manipulation.

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