TERMS OF ENDURANCE

Terms of Endearment isn’t but a fractionally more adult “Mary Tyler Moore” and that’s no accident: James L. Brooks, the movie’s writer-director, was one of the creative forces behind that series. What he tries to do in Terms is use comedy dialogue and situations to bridge familial estrangement with death and dying melodrama. At the center of this tearjerker is the on-going cat fights between mother Shirley MacLaine and daughter Debra Winger, skirmishes I failed to get as involved in as many other reviewers seem to have done—their critiques read like term papers for Psyche 101. Aside from Winger smoking pot and marrying a man Mama doesn’t approve of, and is proven conveniently right when he turns out to be a philanderer, there doesn’t seem to be that much to have nearly thirty years worth of virtual bitch slaps over. If Winger is so exasperated by her mother’s daily long distance calls, why doesn’t she buy an answering machine to screen them? Of course, had she, or had she removed all the pettiness that stands between them with a simple “fuck off, Mother,” there wouldn’t have been much of a story. There’s some interest for us—MacLaine’s amusingly revirginated, blond-raspberry-haired, Sakowitz-dressed widow—but we pay dearly for this when the poor slob daughter is discovered to have terminal cancer. If the assumption is that mother and daughter would never be able to bridge their rifts, and that it has to take cancer to unify them, I couldn’t say the tragedy is false—we all have personal stories about what an illness of a loved one does to us—but Brooks seems delighted to trap himself in clichés and then use jokes about death and dying to redeem them. I’ve heard the word “original” coming from the blurbsters. Not: Brooks stole his humor from the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode from “Mary Tyler Moore.” That segment took shock and grief and made it healthy. But the laughs Brooks gets in Terms don’t release enough endorphins for poor runny-nosed Winger. This movie’s sickeningly implicit about the hopelessness of cancer. Oh shit, it’s way beyond that: Winger is explicitly resigned to her fate, and everyone else seems to be. Cancer is a disease no one really discusses or does much about. The dumb-dumb doctor doesn’t offer methods of treatment; his only way of dealing with Winger is to give instructions that she’s to have periodic pain-numbing shots. He isn’t very interested in that, either, because in the movie’s worst scene MacLaine has to scream at the insensitive nurses that Winger’s overdue for an injection. Her illness isn’t as sanitized as Ali MacGraw’s in Love Story, but it’s close: Winger never goes through the stages of death. Apparently Brooks tried to win for her the Miss Congeniality prize, but it went to MacLaine in the form of an Oscar. The cruddy pop psychology about and insult of Terms of Endurance is that women are being cajoled into crying over Brooks’ belief that bitch-outs cause death.

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