Sometimes, I surprise myself by being sad during a happy family occasion like a wedding or a birthday party, when it makes me realize how old someone who's very dear to me is getting, or how fast life can go. And some other times, as we're mourning the passing of a beloved family member, I find myself sitting at a table, laughing at the jokes of my uncle, or remembering some funny anecdotes involving the one who's not with us anymore. Go figure why, but we humans have this strange tendency to lean over a feeling that is opposite to the situation we endure, like a sort of defensive reaction. Happiness reminds us how we must seize the day, and death how great it is to live.
So that's it, we laugh when we should be sad and cry when we should laugh. Actually, life teaches us that there's no 'should' when it comes to feelings, and its beauty is to make us swing back and forth between happy and sad memories. And to a certain extent, faithful to this very comedic aspect that can't go without a few tears, "Terms of Endearment" embodies the passing of life as this big joke with a sad punch line: we all laugh, have great time, but every once in a while, a sad event comes to remind us what is waiting for us. It follows a streak of successful Best Picture winning family dramas, such as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Ordinary People", but "Terms of Endearment" is slightly superior in the way it dares to approach life with an intelligent mix of detachment and irony but never without a profound and inspiring humanism.
Still, what a strange film! No wait, I shouldn't even use the word 'film' because by no chances, does it try to exploit some cinematic conventions in order to extract the right feelings from its audience. Albert Brooks not only trusts our intelligence but also our patience as the story plunges us in the world of Aurora and Emma, Shirley MecLaine and Debra Winger, mother and daughter. I say 'strange' film because it has the curious feel of a TV movie without the archetypes of a vulgar soap opera, it's made with a modest tone of pastel colors and following an episodic structure, like so many slices of people's lives, people no worse or better than you and I, but the flow is so fluid and perfect that we let ourselves guided by the story, never really expecting for something to happen, we're just put here as witnesses of a story, which exemplifies our own vision of life.
And that's the remarkable exploit of the film, the key that forged its success. "Terms of Endearment", which is unlike any film made before, was one of the highest grossing of 1983 and although I found "The Right Stuff" to be a much more extraordinary experience (and most deserving of the Best Picture award), "Terms of Endearment" possesses an endearing quality, which relies on its faithful approach to life, something made of laughs, anger, sadness and fears, simply put the four main emotions that drive our feelings. "Terms of Endearment" finds the perfect tone and balance between laughs and sadness, comic and pathos. In a way, the film can remind of "Love Story" without an hyperbolic classicism that could have ruined it.
Emma the daughter, has this burning passion in her heart just like Ali McGraw's character and her mother works as the total opposite, she seems cold and distant, criticizing all her daughter's choices, above them all the decision to marry a teacher named Flap (Jeff Daniels). But Emma never decides, she just lives while Aurora uses her maturity and status as a courted widow to better not to look at her own issues. The interactions between Emma and Aurora seems so genuine that I wondered if the two actresses were really mother and daughter. You could tell that these two women were the best friends in the world, with this unique complicity that couldn't only be translated into awkward reactions. One of the biggest issues that undermine the characters' interactions is the impossible communication of true feelings and the way it's handled provides the comedic spice of the film.
At a pivotal moment, Aurora finally decides to invite Garrett Breedlove, the ex-astronaut, neighbor since years and infamous for his lust for younger women, just to see her 'Renoir', referring to a very precious painting -a second reading at these lines makes the whole situation subtly hilarious. And not only this role was so tailor-made for Nicholson that it earned him his second Oscar win, but Mac Laine is the perfect match for him, and Brooks knew how to build a believable chemistry between them. At one point, Garrett makes a whole rhapsody about the way he feels things are getting too serious for his taste, to be interrupted by Aurora's reactions, it's funny but it also shows that not only she's no fool, but she doesn't even feel hurt. The film avoids two opposite clichés, turning them into derision to better show the futility of all that stuff. Another crucial scene is Emma's monologue in New York City on the way she feels about people's problems, an extraordinary moment I don't want to spoil.
The film evolves beautifully with a last act that is forever rooted in our memories, thanks to the remarkable performances of both Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine, surrounded by great supporting performances. The film doesn't feature iconic moments, isn't renowned for a particular quote, but it has a level of emotionality that has often been copied but never equaled. And to give you an idea if you haven't seen it yet, just listen to Michael Gore's magnificent theme and it will give you an idea.