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Looking Back: The Evening Star (1996)

Some sequels need defending and, from the day it opened, “The Evening Star” has always been one of them. Ostensibly “Terms of Endearment II,” this came a decade and three years later and no longer stars Debra Winger, whose Emma died at the end of the first film. The focus of the follow up film (and the Larry McMurtry novel that inspired it) is on Aurora Greenway, Emma’s outspoken mother, played by Shirley MacLaine.

A refresher: in “Terms of Endearment,” Winger’s Emma is struggling to raise three kids while her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels) grows distant. Meanwhile, Emma’s mother Aurora (MacLaine) is falling in love with her neighbor, a feisty astronaut named Garrett Breedlove (played by Jack Nicholson). The film, both tragic and hilarious, was a surprise blockbuster, one of the great comedies of the 1980’s and the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1983. It marked the directorial debut of writer/director, James L. Brooks, whose subsequent films include “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.” Clearly, making a second film was a tall order and a great risk.

THE EVENING STAR, Juliette Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, George Newbern, Mackenzie Astin, 1996, (c)Paramount

Here’s a sequel that isn’t a rip-off of the original or “bigger” but a tender expansion of the established narrative. “Terms of Endearment” was a tribute to Emma, Debra Winger’s character and this one is a love letter to Aurora Greenway, played again by MacLaine.

Like Peter Bogdonovich’s unloved but rewarding “Texasville,” “The Evening Star” is broad, episodic and shares that film’s depiction of Lone Star eccentrics. Both films, as well as their predecessors, originate from novels written by Larry McMurtry.  It’s also warm, funny and offers a fresh perspective on the established characters. This is a big, gooey film about the odd changes we go through during the course of our lives.

Aurora struggles with raising Emma’s children, whose paths are surprising: Emma’s oldest (George Newbern) is in jail, while her daughter (Juliette Lewis) is a wild child with a dim wannabe movie star boyfriend (Scott Wolf). While Aurora seeks help from a local therapist (Bill Paxton), she’s constantly at war with Patsy (Miranda Richardson), Emma’s former friend whose lavish lifestyle promises a life Aurora can’t provide her grandchildren. Robert Harling, the author of “Steel Magnolias” (which starred MacLaine) is the film’s director.

The emphasis is on Aurora’s circle of chaos (her friends, family and failed lovers), making for an affectionate, if eccentric film. As odd as this gets at times, it’s a pleasure to watch these characters grow through the years.

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Brooks’ film was better, of course, as it offered unguarded moments and true character revelations. Here, the material is sometimes winning but occasionally sitcom ready. The soft, folksy touch Harling brought to “Steel Magnolias” is on hand and it mostly works.

“The Evening Star” is a film of memories, as photo albums are used to cue us on the theme of recognizing and cherishing the golden moments when they happen. If this all sounds too sweet for you, then you probably didn’t like “Terms of Endearment,” either.

Along with “In Her Shoes” and “Bernie,” this is among the best of MacLaine’s recent performances. Marion Ross is deeply moving in the role of Rosie, one of the many long suffering witnesses in Aurora’s circle of friends. Lewis is perfectly cast as Emma’s daughter (though she overplays her initial scenes) and Newbern and Wolf are funny in support.

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Nicholson’s delicious cameo appearance jump starts the movie, giving the second act some needed life after too many funeral scenes. His entrance is golden: clearly, Nicholson knows the audience will savor his first appearance. His scenes with MacLaine are wonderful- the dialog is hit and miss but their unforced chemistry and attraction resonates. What a pleasure to see them together again. As corny as the scene is, it’s the film’s crown jewel.

The concluding montage scenes of Aurora playing the piano with her great-grandson are touching. The conclusion suggests, in a subtle, joyful way, that the great love of Aurora’s life is her great-grandson. The final scene allows the film to go full circle back to the original film and acknowledge how amazing the journey of both MacLaine and Newbern’s character is.

When it was released during Christmas of 1996, most film critics dubbed it another “The Sting II” and audiences stayed away. “The Evening Star” has a bumpy mid section but wraps up so movingly, it put a lump in my throat. Harling’s movie is schmaltzy but genuinely sweet and MacLaine is sublime.

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