This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.
Until its shamelessly tearjerking final act, Terms of Endearment (1983) is an entertaining, quirkily funny treatment of the close, if stormy, relationship between an uptight middle-aged widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her unpretentious adult daughter (Debra Winger). The picture follows them through the daughter’s marriage to a philandering college professor (Jeff Daniels), and the mother’s affair with an astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson). There are also the daughter’s assorted domestic dramas, including a brief fling with an insecure banker (John Lithgow). James L. Brooks, who wrote and directed, was previously known for the TV sitcoms Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the picture isn’t far removed from their style. Oddball characters of varying eccentricity are played off each other for pleasantly contrived humor. The actors are directed to stay loose, breathe with the material, and shine. The film is enjoyable enough for a viewer to forget about the its distastefully manipulative closing section. As with Brooks' sitcoms, the cast is first-rate. Debra Winger is probably the most impressive. She’s an astonishingly vibrant presence as the daughter, and in her quieter scenes, the character’s feelings seem to be emanating through her skin. Shirley MacLaine plays the cantankerous mother with terrific, almost show-stopping skill. She’s perhaps a bit too theatrical at points, but she demonstrates time and again how to use her timing for maximum comic and dramatic effect. As the astronaut, Jack Nicholson isn’t called on to play much beyond his standard over-aged bad-boy persona, but he may never have handled it as hilariously as he does here. John Lithgow’s earnest wistfulness is note-perfect, and while Jeff Daniels isn’t given much to do beyond playing straight man to the two female stars, he certainly holds his own. Among the behind-the-scenes artisans, production designer Polly Platt deserves special kudos; the mother’s grotesquely overcultivated garden is witty perfection. The screenplay is based on Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel. (The Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, and Jeff Daniels characters first appeared in McMurtry's 1970 novel Moving On; Jack Nicholson's role was created by James L. Brooks for the film.)