James L. Brooks's Terms of Endearment is the sentimental journey of a widowed mother who informs her daughter that she "isn't special enough to overcome a bad marriage." It begins, briefly, with Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) worrying irrationally about her newborn girl, flashes quickly to her arrival home following her husband's premature death with little Emma in tow, and soon thereafter arrives at the aforementioned moment in which she expresses her doubts about Emma (Debra Winger)'s choice of husband-- Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels).
The film excels at covering long stretches of time without any uncinematic titles or awkward montages. We follow not only Emma's marriage, children, and home life; but Flap's career as a teacher, as well as her mother's loneliness and eventual adventures with her next-door neighbor, former astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). The plot is natural and although it follows for the most part average human experiences it does so just enough off-center to make them original (yes, you may have gone on a date with your next door neighbor after years of ignoring them, but did they drive their car with their feet for fun during it?). That the last third comes a bit out of left field and goes unabashedly for the heart is both the film's weakness and strength and it's palatability is individual to the viewer. Without the end, however, we'd never know just what each of the characters was capable of, and, therefore, in many ways, it's the perfect way to wrap the story. Helping to hold the film together is the memorable theme that plays throughout the score (a now oft-played piece of movie music). Although it seems ever-present, there are many other effective pieces of music throughout, which are expertly placed to stave off lulls.
Its hard not to point out the genuine appeal of Terms of Endearment. The characters are interesting, their problems are ours, and the performances are rich. When Shirley MacLaine triumphantly exclaimed "I deserve this!" as she won her Oscar, she surely meant for career effort in addition to her performance of Aurora. However, this was no pity Oscar. Her repressed, overbearing Aurora manages to be unchanging yet understanding to all around her. The scenes between MacLaine and Nicholson are the most entertaining to watch, these two people who come together for no good reason and who don't belong together, save the fact that they're both barely holding together their individual lives at the moment they hook up. Nicholson is gleeful as Garrett and his occasional off-the-wall expressions and deliverly, which have not always worked for him in every role, serve Emmett well.
There are certain recurring motifs that add cinematic depth to Terms of Endearment : Emma's Broadway show tunes, the aspect of physical distance between the characters, and the telephone conversations. Emma's Broadway songs, which are strictly a part of the first thirty-odd minutes of the film, show her freedom from her mother, but are dropped when it becomes clear that Emma will always need Aurora. Physical distances have a stronger meaning: that Flap and Emma travel apart also represents their crumbling marriage; Emma's distance from her mother goes from the furthest extreme to the closest by the film's end as her need for her returns; Aurora and Garrett meet at the fence between their yards and once the physical distance was breached, they could never really be apart. The phone conversations (upward of ten throughout the movie) strike a rhythm of extreme ups and downs, each is either made due to some particular happiness or because of some crisis. Side quibble: the frequent lack of audio filtering when off-screen phone dialogue is being spoken (and yet this "mistake" can be used to argue that in Terms these conversations are more important than in other movies that use them to just move the plot along).
The screenplay is filled with memorable lines and telling moments. Although not widespread, there is a lot of humor as well. The humor serves as an example of how natural the movie comes across-- life isn't filled with a string of non-stop laughs, but there are many along the way. The conflict between the characters is never over-the-top, never off putting. The film is dated only in its lack of minorities on screen, which is rarely, if ever, an issue anymore.
Terms of Endearment (1983): A perfect case of taking all the norms of filmmaking and of life experience, throwing them just off-center, lining up all the right talent, and creating a satisfying, memorable movie experience.