Ask me to make a snap judgment, and I think I might very well say that 1983 is the worst single year in the history of American cinema. I'd also say that the 1983 Academy Awards, notwithstanding the gratifying overperformance of Ingmar Bergman's monumental Fanny and Alexander (four wins on six nominations, for a subtitled movie!), had the overall worst array of nominees in that august institution's history, including three for The Big Chill, a film that belongs on any proper shortlist of candidates for the title of worst Best Picture nominee ever. This matters because we have now come face to face with what is arguably the quintessential 1983 movie: Terms of Endearment, winner of the Best Picture Oscar and four others, also chosen as the year's best by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review, as well as the second-highest-grossing film of the year behind the franchise juggernaut Return of the Jedi. As the film of the worst year for films, it is only right and appropriate that it should turn out to be completely fucking awful.

Terms of Endearment is the first film directed by legendary sitcom creator James L. Brooks (who had previously written 1979's Starting Over, maybe the strongest of the dreary late-'70s divorce movie cycle), and it is impossible to forget any part of that while you're watching. Particularly that this man had, prior to this film, zero credits directing anything in any medium. Terms of Endearment is, on the one hand, among the most visually unappealing character dramas of its generation, without a single interesting composition across its 132 minutes of interchangeable establishing shots and medium shots, though there is a canted close-up of Debra Winger that is at least astonishingly bad. And very late in the film, there's a running handheld tracking shot that's not really interesting in and of itself, though at that point I was so amazed to see purposeful, noticeable camera movement that I gasped. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, who was just then in the process of becoming Sidney Lumet's guy, films the whole thing in this insanely hideous soft pinkish hue, like he smeared the lenses with rose-colored Vaseline before starting; it certainly gives the film a distinctive look, though one that feels tawdry and tasteless in its attempt create some kind of warm domestic look. And on the other hand, it's paced like a car whose engine keeps stalling every other block, lumbering listless across those same 132 minutes with absolutely no sense of rhythm, just a kind of shapeless oscillation between its two plot threads that somehow continues even after those threads have been tied back together.

As adapted from a 1975 novel by Larry McMurtry, the film tells the story of a stormy mother-daughter relationship, and the romantic travails of both the mother and daughter as they go their separate ways through life. It starts promisingly enough, with a fairly deadpan single-take scene of Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) panicking that her baby is dead; she bothers little tiny Emma until the infant starts screeching, at which point Emma is content and ready to leave the house. It's an adroit introduction to Aurora and her particular basket of neuroses, and in particular the casual viciousness with which the mother approaches her child's wellbeing. It's funny and insightful, two things that Terms of Endearment will very rarely be hereafter, though it supposes itself to be both.

The meat of the film covers something like 12 years once Emma has grown to adulthood (at which time she is played by Winger); I say "something like", because one of the chief flaws of Brooks's catastrophe of a screenplay is that it makes it virtually impossible to tell how much time is passing; the lack of visible aging on the part of any of the lead actors compounds this, so the only clue we ever get is that Troy Bishop, playing Emma's elder son Tommy, was 10 years old at the time of shooting. Otherwise, there's no real way to tell how the hell long anything takes, which in turn makes it next to impossible to understand how characters are evolving and changing. This matches well with the other chief flaw, which is that this feels extremely like the work of a screenwriter used to think of stories in terms of the ten-minute chunks in between commercial breaks. It is a film made up almost solely of short, punchy, pithy scenes, incomprehensibly connected to each other, with that disconnection exaggerated by the film's mechanical alternation of scenes about Emma and her bad marriage to the faithless professor Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), and Aurora's itchy courtship with her terminally horny next-door neighbor, ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).

Switching back and forth between these two plot threads absolves the film of any need to actually present narrative flow: it's simply a bunch of loosely-assembled anecdotes that move in chronological order without explaining why anything actually happens. We're basically just taking the film's word for it that Emma and Flap's (ugh, that name!) marriage is going wrong, that Aurora and Garrett have any kind of actual emotional connection, that Aurora and Emma have a real supportive love for each other beneath the neurotic bickering - that Aurora has a single admirable or likable characteristic at all, really. The film is so good at sketching her out as a selfish narcissist whose primary attitude to her daughter is to enjoy being able to manipulate her, that when it requires us to believe that there's any kind of decent human warmth in her soul, it's not clear where it's coming from. When the film's beloved and notorious final act kicks in, and we need to feel that warmth between the characters, the only strategy the film has for suggesting that Aurora has fundamentally changed her ways is that the hair and make-up people have colluded to make MacLaine look ugly.

With Brooks's writing and directing combining to absolutely no good effect, the film falls entirely o the shoulders of the actors, and the good news at least is that they can hold it up enough for this to be at least tolerably watchable. And by "they", I mean Winger and MacLaine - Daniels is insipid from the word "go", leaning into Flap's mildewy side so hard, so early that it's quite hard to understand why Emma would ever want to be with him to begin with, unless it's that she knows it pisses off Aurora. John Lithgow is wasted on a trivial small role and completely fumbles his Southern accent. And for Nicholson, this is maybe the role with which he irrevocably transformed into the profoundly lazy actor of his late career, resting entirely on "doing a Jack" and letting his slightly oily charisma doing all the work for him; early on, there's a moment when he pulls a face s hard it looks like he's going to sprain something, rolling his eyes and working his jaw bizarrely, and it's something that should have been slapped down in rehearsals, let alone making it all the way to the set. At any rate, he's gliding frictionlessly through the material, something he had done in the past, but being rewarded for an Oscar for it seems to have caused him to give up entirely; glancing over the performance from the rest of his career, I don't think there's a single one that I actually admire for its own sake, rather than because he was well-cast to take advantage of his shtick (Batman and Mars Attacks! being the obvious examples of the latter).

But I was starting out looking to praise Winger and MacLaine. More the former than the latter, truth be told; MacLaine drops the ball when the film turns to its tear-jerking tragedy, never finding nearly so comfortable and knowing a groove as when Aurora is basically just a self-amused asshole. She has a scene where she's screaming at hospital staff to give Emma pain medication that's unhinged and unmodulated in the most campy register imaginable; it is quite possibly my least-favorite moment in any Oscar-winning performance that isn't Mary Pickford in Coquette. But prior to that shift, which the rest of the movie can't handle either, she's pretty great, elevating the bland humor of the script with acerbic humor grounded in a slightly terrified overabundance of self-awareness; she makes Aurora a woman whose behavior is almost compulsive, which in turn ends up making her a bit more tragic. Winger is great throughout, cutting against the grain of the writing with a similar kind of self-awareness, a constant sense that she's about to break into laughter from being too conscious for her own good. It's an interesting way to suggest the mother-daughter relationship that is stated rather than demonstrated in the script: showing that Aurora and Emma approach the world the same way through MacLaine and Winger attacking the material from similar directions, though different enough to show the tension and different attitudes between them (and between the actors, who got along terribly). Plus, both of them are thus able to find interesting personalising stamps on the many scenes that keep them split apart (though even Winger's prickly way of slicing through the movie can't make sense of the strange, derailing trip to New York her character makes late in the film). Their combined work isn't nearly enough to redeem Terms of Endearment as a character study, but at least it gives it something to latch onto.