Terms of Endearment
First-time director James Brooks said of Terms of Endearment, "People are always trying to think of shortcuts on making the kinds of films people want to see. But that doesn't work. The only answer I know is to do the film you really want to do and just try to be good at it." He did, and he has succeeded well enough to create one of the most original and curiously touching films of the year.
This movie doesn't fit any preset categories. It begins as a comedy, with numerous crazily unpredictable comic touches; it ends as a tragedy, with the daughter dying of cancer and the burden of what to do with the children. Yet the transition from the one to the other- along with several subsidiary transitions in between-is never felt as awkward or straining credibility. The film flows, like life itself, with the interruption of one causal series of events by another, united into a whole by the well-drawn and memorable characterizations.
Central to the drama is the mother (Shirley MacLaine), whose pointed remarks set the tone of the film. "You aren't special enough to overcome a bad marriage," she tells her daughter. And when the mother refuses to attend the daughter's wedding, the daughter (Debra Winger) says, "It sure would be nice to have a mother somebody likes." The relation between mother and son-in-law (Jeff Daniels) is strained: when he takes a job in Des Moines, MacLaine says, "You can't even fail locally."
Yet this is not primarily a comedy of bitchery. The comedy is, as in all good films, a by-product of a characterization that has other goals in mind. There is pathos in the film, along with sadness, tension, frustration, and, most of all, a moving and abiding love between mother and daughter (who are more like sisters) that sustains themselves as well as the picture. No one else really counts, not even the next-door ex-astronaut-suitor (beautifully played by Jack Nicholson) or the frustrated banker who beds the daughter (a marvelous bit performance by John Lithgow).
What is most remarkable about this film is its freshness of insight into human relations. One moves with its unexpected rhythms, empathizing totally at each juncture. "There is never," writes the director, "a moment in the picture that takes you to the next moment or the next place. You just arrive and it seems inevitable-I hope." It does-or even if it doesn't, the viewer is so caught up in the lives of the interacting characters, each vividly etched in deft strokes of characterization so as to leave an abiding impression, that things like inevitability or even careful plot structure don't seem to matter anymore.
Compared with director Brian De Palma's previous ventures in suspense, there is no suspense at all in Scarface-its outcome is predictable from the start. Yet every film he does, De Palma has recently told the press, is "highly moral." This one could indeed be construed as a kind of morality play: a man with a strong penchant toward evil succumbs to it, rises in the world of crime, and is brought down. But most of the film consists of monotonously repeated violence-shooting, blood, gore, severed limbs, and endlessly repeated four-letter words. It lasts for almost three hours, and most of it is a bore. It ends only when practically everybody is dead.
A1 Pacino is very good as Scarface, presented here as a Cuban exported from Castro's prisons, but certainly no better than was Paul Muni in the original version of this film, directed many years ago by Howard Hawks. At least Hawks gave the protagonist some interesting character traits; Pacino is evil practically from the beginning to the end, and thus the main characteristic by which we identify with characters, sympathy, is lacking. Since the earlier Scarface is frequently presented on television, it's worth seeing at home and saving the price of a ticket to the new one-except, that is, by those viewers who prefer a hundred murders to a dozen.
Director Sam Fuller, the master of violence (along with the other Sam, Peckinpah), has turned his talents to the depiction of animal violence, specifically, to a white dog-that is, a dog that has been trained in puppyhood to attack only black people. The film has been denied general circulation because of its supposed racist theme; this is unfortunate, for there has never been a less racist film.
A girl who lives alone finds a stray dog in her yard, to whom she develops a strong attachment, particularly after the dog saves her from an attacking rapist. But when the dog attacks an innocent person, she learns through a trainer that it is a "white dog," and the only thing to do is shoot it.
She refuses this option and exhausts every possible alternative in an attempt to retrain (uncondition) the dog. The black trainer is infinitely patient and takes great risks; the development of this aspect of the story is intense and dramatic. The outcome of any attempt at unconditioning is, however, chancy: should the dog be saved even at the subsequent risk of human life?
The scene in which the girl confronts the man who trained the dog as a puppy to be a "white dog" is emotionally involving enough by itself to be worth the price of admission. The rest of the film is a further bonus.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the editor of the Monist.