In an era when many rightly bemoan the lack of decent roles for mature women, it must have seemed a great idea to fashion a sequel to Terms of Endearment (1983). Shirley MacLaine's Aurora emerged from that film as the feisty, all-too-human centre of a sprawling community of friends, lovers and family members.
Terms of Endearment was a contentious movie, dividing viewers into those who found it reactionary twaddle, and others who lost their heart to its shameless emotional manipulations. I do not think it can be denied in retrospect that James L. Brooks' directorial debut was an extremely crafty piece of filmmaking – particularly in the smooth way it glided between many different modes of comedy and drama.
Where Terms of Endearment cleverly inserted elements of romantic comedy and even screwball humour into its story, The Evening Star (with which Brooks is not involved) is more strictly modelled on television soap opera. Its almost plotless course has an as-the-world-turns feel. Young people rebel; old people die; weddings, birthdays and funerals mark the passing seasons. It is all rather underwhelming.
The film never finds its centre – certainly not in the pale rivalry played out between Aurora and Patsy (Miranda Richardson) over the guileless psychotherapist Jerry (Bill Paxton). When the thin plot seems utterly spent, writer-director Robert Harling wheels in Jack Nicholson for an inconsequential cameo.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this sequel is the character of Aurora. In Terms of Endearment she was impossibly stern, cold and manipulative; Nicholson rightly described her as having "a bug up her ass". The charm of the original lay in Aurora's gradual loosening up.
But in The Evening Star, although everyone constantly rolls their eyeballs while muttering how difficult Aurora is, she is actually the soul of pleasantness: generous, freely loving, ultimately accepting of every exasperating incident that life dishes up.
Above all, this sequel lacks the clear-eyed, even cruel perspective of the original. Terms of Endearment is not a wholly feel-good experience; there is cowardice, betrayal and error in its moral universe. But nothing really darkens the sky in The Evening Star, and that makes it a bland confection.
© Adrian Martin February 1997