The blending of comedy and drama film is a tricky recipe to pull off, and some directors are better “chefs” than others. There’s a great danger of over seasoning with schmaltz, under seasoning the laughs and adding an unappetising dollop of cliché just to be safe. Garry Marshall for instance, has repeatedly burned and poisoned the formula with squirm-fests such as ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’, ‘Raising Helen’ and ‘Georgia Rule’. His better attempts (‘Beaches’, ‘Pretty Woman’) can only be called passable guilty pleasures. Thankfully though, I’m not reviewing a Garry Marshall movie.
Let me put it this way: if Hitchcock is the master of horror, then James L Brooks is the master of the comedy tearjerker. If you’re squinting at the name James L Brooks with the strange sensation of having seen it somewhere before numerous times yet it never having registered look no further than the picture below.
That’s right. Not only is Brooks an Oscar winning director but was also partly responsible for what is arguably the greatest TV comedy ever made. And, as anyone who is a Simpson’s fan will know, there’s plenty of genuine tear-jerking moments in the show. He’s seemingly got that rare touch.
Or at least did. His latest project ‘How Do You Know’ starring Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon tanked, and deepest condolences if you sat through it. I assure you though, when Brooks gets it right, it’s five star. Case in point: ‘Terms of Endearment’.
Let’s make this review interesting. Continuing my little recipe analogy, what are the ingredients of a perfect comedy-tearjerker that Brooks mixed together to produce this marvellous little film?
1) A straightforward, no-frills plot
‘Terms of Endearment’ revolves around the turbulent thirty year relationship between mother Aurora (Shirley Maclaine) and daughter Emma (Debra Winger). To her mother’s chagrin, Emma’s choice of husband is a man as bland and idiotic as his name – Flap (Jeff Daniels). Their relationship is strained further when Emma moves away, and Aurora is left with an empty life, no longer having Emma under her control. Not to mention she must face the fact she has no love life to speak of. Thankfully her new neighbour, sleazy playboy ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), may just prove an unexpected light in her life. As time passes, each of their relationships reach high and low points, flaws are exposed and life takes unexpected directions for them all. And then, one fairly normal morning, when Emma is at the doctor’s getting a flu shot, a lump is discovered in her armpit. It’s time to start coming to terms with each other for real.
2) Complex themes
The mother-daughter relationship is arguably the main plot thread. Aurora is overbearing, critical, prudish and dramatic. Emma is carefree, feisty, strong-willed and open. They dislike each other as much as they love one another. All the supporting characters and their relationships are significant and worth acknowledging too. Emma and Flap’s initial attitude to what marriage will be like is both naive and immature, and neither of them really grow up (particularly Flap). Motherhood doesn’t prove easy for Emma. Although a vastly different kind of mother than Aurora, her eldest child despises her. Garrett may seem like the mere comic relief but there is far more to his character – as even he is surprised to learn. All the characters wear their hearts and flaws on their sleeve. Many questions are invited by this film: why do we keep loving the people who hurt us? Why do people change yet somehow never grow? Is it our fault? Or is that just life?
3) Memorable, vivid characters and perfect casting
This film got four acting nominations and it’s no surprise. Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger were both competing for best leading actress (Maclaine won). And Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow (who turns in a charming performance as Emma’s kind-hearted revenge lay) were up for best supporting actor – Nicholson won that. I could rave about all the performances but would be here all day. Put simply, Nicholson is hilarious, Winger breaks your heart and Maclaine accomplishes both. Seriously, Shirley Maclaine is phenomenal in this film. For all Aurora’s infuriating character traits and less than tactful way of giving motherly advice (“You are not special enough to over come a bad marriage”), you somehow fall in love with her – much like Garrett does. She is too complex to not find endearing, and it rests on Maclaine’s performance. There’s debate whether Aurora is the mother from hell or one hell of a mother, and it’s a hard call for me to make. But for anyone who doubts Aurora genuinely loves her daughter – in whatever destructive, selfish way – the scene below should assuage that thought. On its own, it is powerful but in the context of the film it’s just heart-wrenching.
4) The drama is handled appropriately 5) the comedy is full on but reigned in as necessary (these two go hand in hand)
Terminal illness is handled very poorly in a lot of films. All too often it is a last-minute manipulative plot device inserted to give the illusion of true emotional substance. It comes out of left field, is portrayed completely inaccurately and even disrespectfully to sufferers (The most vomit-inducing instance I ever saw of this was without a doubt ‘A Walk to Remember’ – based on a book by Nicholas Sparks. Go figure). What is extraordinary about ‘Terms of Endearment’ is how poignantly realistic it is. It is sentimental in the most constrained way. I don’t know how he did it, but Brooks pulled off a film full of moments of sheer comedy that by the end leaves you crying your eyes out. And yet the subtlety and honesty of the film makes that emotional transition feel so natural. Because that’s life. One minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying.
Verdict in a word: fan-fuckin-tastic.
(Oh and for the love of God, if you like this movie you MUST see James L Brook’s other home-run: ‘As Good as it Gets’)
Don’t forget to like, comment and/or subscribe. It takes half a second but means the world.