Hollywood routinely creates movies whose sole reason for existing is to provide a beloved celebrity a showcase to deliver a scenery-chewing star turn; occasionally these films even win their lead performer an Oscar (recent example: Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman). But The Evening Star may be the first movie whose chief aim is to exalt a performer for her stellar work in another movie: Every frame is oozing with such admiration for the magic Shirley MacLaine worked in Star's predecessor, 1983's Terms of Endearment, that it frequently neglects to stand on its own terms.
Evening Star, like Terms before it, is based on a Larry McMurtry novel about lovable Force of Nature Aurora Greenway, the sort of larger-than-life woman who inspires characters she has known for decades to persist in calling her by her complete name. Terms, of course, was about Aurora's love-hate relationship with her rebellious daughter Emma (Debra Winger) and hate-love relationship with rebellious former astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson, who bared his impressive gut and won himself an Oscar). At film's end Emma met her Maker (the one who's not Aurora), but not before an excruciatingly shameless scene in which she and her kids keep up a brave face during their final moments together. Still, that movie -- written and directed by James L. Brooks -- was populated with complex and interesting characters and boasted some winsome, clever dialogue.
No such luck this time around. McMurtry's second Aurora novel is fatter than Breedlove's belly, so writer-director Robert Harling, who plowed similar territory with his play and screenplay for Steel Magnolias, had to do his trimming with a chain saw. Some of the trims are for obvious streamlining purposes, while some are to guarantee a PG-13 rating: McMurtry created a new former beau for Aurora, the colonel, who parades around in the nude; here, Harling just gives him bad fashion sense. McMurtry made Aurora's grandchildren exponentially more vexing: Melanie was a pregnant slut, Teddy and his girlfriend both liked girls, and Tommy got shivved in prison. None of these complications intrudes upon this rather genteel adaption -- and really, that doesn't seem too great a loss. (Peter Bogdanovich, in adapting The Last Picture Show's sequel Texasville, similarly jettisoned a lot of crass material McMurtry apparently intended as zany and sexy, but Bogdanovich couldn't corral what was left into anything of much interest.) Harling's other screenplays, Soapdish and The First Wives Club, steamrollered subtlety in favor of standard hackwork gags. Here, even though he knows he should be treading lightly as he's embellishing on a beloved seriocomic drama, his wacky impulses too often get the best of him (and William Ross's sitcom-y music doesn't help matters). Early on, Aurora encounters all manner of irritation just wandering around her home; one character asks faithful maid Rosie (Marion Ross), "What's going on?" "Life as we know it" is the irksomely precious reply. Aw, gawrsh -- Harling elbows the audience in the ribs a bit too aggressively: Ain't her life the nuttiest? Harling divvies his material between shtick and pathos, a not terribly rewarding range.
Shtick, pathos, and reminding us just how terrific Terms was, that is. There are three scenes of exposition, pretty much explaining everything of import that occurred in the first movie; more perturbing are the numerous scenes that are direct cribs from -- Harling might charitably argue they're homages to -- Brooks's film, as if nothing else could happen in Aurora's life that could match what unfolded in Terms. (In fact, much of the movie is actually concerned with Aurora putting together scrapbooks of her life.) Aping earlier material may be acceptable if you're dealing with mindless crowd pleasers like the Lethal Weapon series or Stallone flicks; when you're creating a redux of an Oscar-honored film, however, you should be aspiring for a little more.
The Evening Star is an episodic saga -- just like life! -- that finds Aurora alternately tangling with her grandkids and with Emma's pal Patsy (Miranda Richardson), now a rich divorcee whom the kids confide in more than their grandma. Surly Tommy (George Newburn) is doing time; his only delight is chucking Aurora's lovingly baked brownies in the trash while she watches. Little lost Melanie (Juliette Lewis) has a knack for standing by the wrong man; she goes to Hollywood and, in the movie's most stupid subplot, becomes a sitcom star after her first audition (the entertainment industry is so stuck on itself that even a movie set in Houston can't help but throw in some ersatz Hollywood glamour). Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is basically shunted to the side to provide exposition when needed; Aurora does, at least, disapprove of his live-in girlfriend.
In the story line that actually goes somewhere pretty interesting, good ol' Rosie cons Aurora into securing the services -- in more ways than one -- of a therapist with dubious credentials (Bill Paxton), who, it amusingly turns out, is in more dire need of therapy than Aurora could ever be. Alas, this plays itself out long before the movie is over, and we're resigned to wallowing in more routine melodrama the rest of the way. At least for the time he's on-screen, Paxton provides the movie with a much-needed quirky spark.
As the movie plods along, tragedy and triumph swap time on center stage as mechanically as tag-team wrasslers, using brute force to bully the audience into numb submission. Gradually everyone is persuaded of Aurora's headstrong charms, and then, for the coup de grace, Nicholson makes an obligatory ten-minute appearance -- but truth be told, he's playing Jack more than Garrett Breedlove. The writing does pick up as Nicholson spouts some epigrammatic lines, delivering the movie's big message (merely surviving and living a good long life is a victory in itself) and explaining the movie's title (the evening star shines first, brightest, and longest -- just like Aurora herself!). As the audience surrogate, he tells Aurora he still loves her.
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MacLaine may be the only one here uninterested in simply resting on her laurels: She does solid, admirably understated work even when the material tempts her to overplay broadly. Richardson too is entertaining as the fatuously friendly Patsy, though this role seems well beneath her talents. The remainder of the cast is serviceable, but Lewis's mannerisms have long since entered the grating phase.
As it winds down, The Evening Star does a lot of fast-forwarding, as if Harling himself is getting tired of his story and is scurrying to reach the conclusion that Aurora's life was indeed wonderful, if terribly messy. (McMurtry's book did much the same thing -- some of the later chapters were no more than a few sentences.) By then you just want it to be over -- which is hardly the tribute to Aurora, or MacLaine, that anyone intended.
The Evening Star.
Written by Robert Harling, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry; directed by Robert Harling; with Shirley MacLaine, Bill Paxton, Juliette Lewis, Miranda Richardson, Ben Johnson, Scott Wolf, George Newburn, Marion Ross, Mackenzie Astin, Donald Moffat, and Jack Nicholson.