The emotional goulash of 'Endearment'; a spirited 'Yentl'

There seems to be seems confusion about what's funny. "Terms of Endearment" and "The Dresser" are comedies, according to their studios. But not according to the folks who give the Golden Globe awards, one of moviedom's most prestigious prizes.

Unlike the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes draw a distinction between the year's best comedy and best drama, bestowing separate honors. Variety, the entertainment journal, reports that Paramount submitted "Terms" and Columbia submitted "Dresser" in the comedy category -- yet both were promptly shifted to the "drama" competition by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which will give the Golden Globes on Jan. 28 in Los Angeles.

Adding to the perplexity, Twentieth Century-Fox entered the new "Reuben, Reuben" as a drama -- and came within a hair of having the comedy label slapped on it. Only after a "lively debate" did it keep its drama status, says Variety.

The flap is over, since Paramount and Columbia apparently don't mind the new classifications. But does this peculiar incident have a message? Are movies like "Terms of Endearment" and "The Dresser" too eager to touch both the funny bone and the heartstrings, finally hitting no target at all? Or does the fault lie with reviewers who insist on pigeonholing every film and every emotion?

In principle, I side with the movies instead of the press on this. If a picture really falls between comedy and drama, why lump it with either the farces or the tragedies? Why not call it best fence-straddler of the year? Or invent new prizes that reflect the nuances of cinema better than the present catchall categories?

On the other hand, I think these particular movies brought on the brouhaha themselves. "Terms of Endearment" is so opportunistic you'd think it was scripted from a shopping list: a young marriage, a midlife romance, an illicit affair, a true-blue friendship, a troubled kid, and a fatal illness, all treated with the same pedestrian style. Sure it's a comedy. Sure it's a drama. And sure it's a tragedy, a soap opera, a love story, a family history, and anything else the filmmakers could cram in without having to examine anything too deeply.

Ditto for "The Dresser." It has a tonier atmosphere, with its wartime British setting and its "Lear"-ish story, about an unhinged actor straining to practice a noble art in a barbaric time. But the screenplay careens from pathos to bathos to wisecracks, and the director pumps up all the feelings indiscriminately. The result is cluttered and unfocused. No wonder the studio and the prizegivers disagreed on whether we're supposed to laugh or cry.

I'm disappointed that "The Dresser" doesn't live up to its lofty ambitions. I'm more disappointed with "Terms of Endearment" because, although its ambitions aren't lofty, the subject -- family relations, mostly -- is important.The screenplay tilts between lifelike unpredictability and Hollywood convention. Emotions are exploited but rarely explored. Story lines come and go according to the needs of the moment. Even the PG rating seems ambiguous, given the picture's R-type words and references.

It's not a bad movie, just a secondclass one. The performances mirror its highs and lows. Debra Winger hits all the right notes as a young woman with a complicated family life. Shirley MacLaine has impressive depth, but not quite enough control, as her eccentric mother. Jack Nicholson hams it up ridiculously as mom's boyfriend, a dissipated astronaut. The supporting players, most of them excellent, don't have enough to do.

The picture's problems are rooted in the script, which asks us not to question major gaps. Why is mom such an awful stick-in-the-mud? No clues are offered. Why does she suddenly change, becoming a free spirit? Still no clues. And if the movie is careless in these matters, it's heartless in others -- never making it clear why one small boy seems so disturbed, for instance, or what happens to another child who is traumatized by a death in the family. Even when the plot turns to a serious illness, it seems more manipulative than compassionate. Note how the name of the condition is held back at first, then sprung on the audience for a calculated shock effect.

More problems grow from the picture's visual approach. The director, TV veteran James L. Brooks, films the actors in isolated close-ups, rather than meaningful groups. This is standard practice on TV, where the image is small, and it plays up the star quality of the performers. It also makes life easy for us viewers, by deciding for us what we ought to watch. But it undercuts the relationships between the characters and severs the interplay between them and their surroundings. By slicing every scene into a series of star turns and talking heads, Brooks brings the laziest TV habits to the wide screen.

Why is "Terms of Endearment" such a hit? The story touches a lot of popular topics, from love affairs to bringing up baby, even throwing in an astronaut who clearly doesn't have the right stuff. It also has a conservative streak that may suit some of today's moods, with its mockery of career women and its heroine who would rather say she "never really worked" than call herself a homemaker. In any case, audiences are responding to the picture. Too bad it's more broad than deep, with too few insights to hoist it above the sitcom and soap-opera level. It's a musical, but . . .

Yentl is another movie that nearly slides out of its own category. It's a musical, but there's only one singer -- Barbra Streisand, who guided the whole project -- and not a dance or production number in sight.

The heroine is a rabbi's daughter, somewhere in Eastern Europe just after the turn of the century. Books and study are her first love, but her father must teach her on the sly, since a life of the mind is forbidden to women. So as to pursue her studies after his death, she disguises herself as a man and travels to a center of learning. Bright as she is, she hasn't seen "Tootsie" or "Victor/Victoria" and doesn't know the comic-romantic things that happen when a movie character wears the wrong clothes.

Sure enough, Yentl spends the rest of the picture in familiar situations knocked awry by her phony gender. She falls for a fellow student but can't reveal that she's a she. It's hard to find excuses for not skinny-dipping with the other lads in the local river. She even finds herself married, after a fashion, to a bride who doesn't know her secret.

In the title role, Streisand delivers a strongly felt performance, a little droopy at times but always sincere. As director of the picture -- her first outing in this job -- she shows a strong technical grasp, moving the camera tastefully and keeping a sharp eye on the background details. She also gets sensitive performances from such talented supporting players as Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving, and Nehemiah Persoff.

As co-author of the screenplay, she doesn't succeed so well. It's based on an unusually detailed Isaac Beshevis Singer tale called "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," which races along with a keen narrative thrust. The movie keeps up for a while, then falls into a slump, dwelling too long on the tangled emotions in the heroin's tangled marriage. Since the musical numbers aren't especially lively, either, the energy level sags dangerously low.

In its best scenes, though, "Yentl" entertains with its crisp performances and invigorates with its sturdy feminist perspective. Unlike the Singer story (which is vague and a little kinky when discussing Yentl's motivations), the movie portrays her as a smart, spirited, independent woman who is determined to live fully whatever others may say. Rarely does a movie celebrate books and learning as robustly as "Yentl" does, and it's doubly refreshing to find a hearty female character leading the way.

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