Review: Terms of Endearment (1983)

Director/Screenwriter: James L. Brooks
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow
Genres: Drama, Comedy
MPAA Rating: PG
Best Line: “Don’t worship me until you’ve earned it.”
Runtime: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Release Dates: 11/23/83 (Theatres); 8/1/13 (Streaming)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
Oscars: Won–Picture, Director, Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Adapted Screenplay; Nominated–Actress (Winger), Supporting Actor (Lithgow), Production Design, Sound, Editing, Original Score
Where to Watch: HBO Max

How do I review a multiple-Oscar-winning film that is beloved by many that not only didn’t impress me, but was one of those movies I couldn’t wait to end? Honestly, of course. I am a movie snob after all, so I need to always give my honest opinion, even if it goes against what others are saying and have said. A Rotten Tomatoes score of 78% is actually on the low end for a Best Picture winner, although it still confounds me that the film not only has a “fresh” score but also that it won several Oscars for the performances, directing, and writing. 

Perhaps my biggest disappointment is that I was disappointed with the film, after having heard so much (even re: what happens at the end, thanks to an IMDb summary that gives everything away) about it, and how people laughed and cried throughout. Sure, I smiled and chuckled a bit here and there, but I did not shed one tear or feel any real emotional connection to the characters — so that, when bad things happened to them, I felt no sympathy or catharsis. Almost every character is annoying or at least unlikeable; some films and TV shows (like Succession) are able to get away with this, because the writing is so good and the characters usually have some redeeming qualities. But, the was hardly the case in Terms of Endearment. Granted, I think it’s important to show flawed characters and relationships, which are abundant in the film, but the script is so messy and, at times, nonsensical that this ends up working against the film in a number of ways. 

The actors, namely Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and John Lithgow, are all talented, emotive performers, but here their talents are mostly squandered; they do have some moments and scenes that display their magnificence, but not nearly enough. MacLaine and Nicholson both won for their performances and, while they are strong, they’re hardly deserving of wins, and I’d prefer the Academy reward worthy films, not simply worthy [in their eyes] performances. 

I usually have nothing wrong with well-executed dramedies, those that are able to mix more dramatic, emotional moments with pure hilarity and silliness (Silver Linings Playbook is just one example). Terms of Endearment is not one of those movies. As soon as the film began and the story commenced, and I became familiar with the characters, I was unmoved and uninterested, but I wanted to stick through it; it isn’t fair to review a film you haven’t finished. Plus, I’d heard such great things about it that I wanted to give it a try. Well, to be honest, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, as a 132-minute runtime was far more than I could handle (but I managed it). 

I think this movie may be even worse than Green Book because, even though the characters are slightly annoying and the white savior narrative is inappropriate, it was still charming and I found some redeeming qualities. Here, though, none of the characters are charming or likable (did I mention that already?). Also, I didn’t understand their motivations and what drove them. The women, especially, seem to be defined solely by their relationships, both with each other and with men. Another nit-picky thing to mention is that the film takes place over a longer period of time than is implied by the lack of aging; the only ones who seem to age are Emma’s (Debra Winger) children, although even the two older children are apparently the same age from the time Emma is pregnant with her child to the time that unborn baby is now a toddler. 

Yes, I have numerous issues with the film, but I may be in the minority of critics and Academy voters (apparently, some IMDb users agree with me). Those who enjoy mother-daughter stories may feel an emotional connection when watching this movie, which is at its core about the bond and relationship between mother and daughter. Though, where’s the husband/father? Dead? Divorced? That, among many other questions I had throughout, was left unanswered.