The makers of "The Evening Star" are so worried that you won't remember its predecessor from 13 years ago, "Terms of Endearment," that they continually interrupt the movie to show you photos of the first cast. There's Debra Winger as Shirley MacLaine's doomed daughter Emma, and there's Jeff Daniels as her feckless, worthless son-in-law Flap.
This must happen at least 10 times, and each time it's a mistake, because it reminds you that almost no one in this movie is as good as anyone in that movie, and that this movie doesn't get any closer to your heart than your gag reflex, while that one nested instantly between the ventricles.
It's just not a very good film: episodic, unsuspenseful, almost charmless and completely superficial.
In the original, Shirley MacLaine's willful Aurora Greenway ruled, her self-importance in continual conflict with her humanity, her epic theatricality in perpetual war with her love for her daughter. She was so complex, human, vibrant that it seemed a miracle had happened, and maybe one had: I can't recall an American film since 1983 that has seemed to capture the twisted currents of love, ego and envy that dominate a family as well as that one. Movie makers (and writers) can routinely blow up planets or cities, but they have a great deal of trouble with an accurate representation of real life.
The justification for this film checking in after so much time does at least have some logic to it. Nominally, it chronicles Aurora's bad luck in raising her daughter's three children after Emma died graphically of cancer. Now the kids are young adults; everyone who loved that movie will want to know how it all turned out.
Badly, is the answer: One is a wild college student (Juliette Lewis), another is a dope dealer currently residing in the penitentiary (George Newbern), and one is a day laborer who has fathered a child but never married the mother. All of them hate grandma and with some justification: She imperiously separated them from their father and raised them by her own rigid and nasty rules. But the kids really aren't what the movie is about -- the two boys hardly figure at all, and Lewis (who in fact looks enough like Winger to make the impersonation credible) deserts to Hollywood in the early going.
What we are left with is the prosperous Houston widow's thorny late passage through life, including a fling with a young therapist (Bill Paxton) and a war with one of her daughter's friends (Miranda Richardson) and finally a visit from old lover Everett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).
The three episodes -- almost self-contained short stories never formally integrated into a larger, emotionally meaningful narrative vary from the absurd to the almost interesting. The Paxton thing is a complete waste of time as far as I was concerned: He's not interesting, their love affair isn't interesting, and even the movie seems to grow bored with it, dispensing with his services at the halfway point. The visit from Jack is even more pointless: Nicholson, who represented carnality, life force, mischief and actual fun to the repressed, somewhat smug Aurora the first time through, seems a parody of himself this time. He must think he's still in "Mars Attacks!" for he has the same shallow, exaggerated face-man's way about him, reducing (or inflating) his performance until it's nothing but showy manipulations of his eyebrows and his famous, ratty little eyes.
Of the three, only Richardson's story really clicks, mainly because the actress really brings her character to life with the complexity that is otherwise totally lacking in the film. She's the only one who could have held her own in the original "Terms of Endearment"; her character is a hard-drinking divorcee with too much money and time on her hands, and she and Aurora go at it over a dozen issues. But somehow, she's always there for Aurora.
Of course, the movie throws in a couple of deaths (one would have been enough), a couple of reconciliations, a couple of spats and even an airborne cat fight, the comic high point. But, unlike "Terms," it doesn't grow or build. It merely sputters along, under the misapprehension that Shirley MacLaine is interesting enough carry it.
'The Evening Star'
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Juliette Lewis and Bill Paxton
Directed by Robert Harling
Released by Paramount
Pub Date: 12/25/96