"The Evening Star" doesn't want to be thought of as, bite your tongue, a sequel. Rather it grandly bills itself as "The continuing story of 'Terms of Endearment,' " which makes it sound like the upscale soap opera it actually is.
While sequels to thrill-ride pictures such as "Lethal Weapon" or "Speed" are cut-and-dried affairs, follow-ups to heartfelt films are trickier. "Terms of Endearment," an especially beloved work that managed five Oscars (including best picture) out of 11 nominations, would seem an impossible act to follow, and in fact it is.
For even with the advantage of a sequel novel written by Larry McMurtry and the return of Shirley MacLaine as grand-dame-and-a-half Aurora Greenway, "Evening Star" has serious absences it can't hope to overcome.
Obviously gone is co-star Debra Winger, who played Aurora's cancer-stricken daughter Emma and provided the kind of capable foil for her mother's antics this picture lacks. Also departed is writer-director (and double Oscar winner) James L. Brooks, whose tragi-comic touch made all the difference.
Stepping into that position in his directing debut is Robert Harling, author of "Steel Magnolias," who has in effect turned out "Steel Magnolias II." More purposeless than actually troublesome, this mild and generic Southern comedy of manners is a meandering collection of strung-together incidents whose sole reason for existence seems to be to display MacLaine's practiced gift for comedy.
Her Aurora Greenway is 15 years older than she was at the end of "Terms of Endearment" and a whole lot harder to deal with. A judgmental, overbearing know-it-all who seems to have "sprayed the house with happiness repellent," Aurora's frequent bad moods make everybody quiver yet she has the nerve to complain, "I'm surrounded by the most taxing collection of lunatics."
Naturally Emma's three children, whom Aurora has raised, go to considerable lengths to flee from her. Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) has taken up with an unpleasant woman and produced an even more unpleasant child. Tommy (George Newbern) has gotten himself repeatedly thrown into prison and shows no indication of wanting to leave. And Melanie (Juliette Lewis) sleeps with lowlifes and is if anything in more of a perpetual bad mood than her grandmother.
Still, Aurora does have her coterie of flagellated admirers who masochistically think she's swell. There is Gen. Hector Scott (Donald Moffat), a former lover; Rose (Marion Ross), her much-put-upon housekeeper; and Jerry Bruckner (Bill Paxton), a much younger therapist who is so dense he thinks Aurora has been too selfless for her own good.
MacLaine is accomplished at this sort of business but without someone of equal stature as a rival her work becomes the equivalent of someone hitting tennis balls against a backboard. The attempt to give her a feud with Emma's best friend, Patsy Carpenter (Miranda Richardson), doesn't pan out, and by the time Jack Nicholson makes his much-anticipated return as former astronaut Garrett Breedlove, the film is some two hours old and beyond saving.
There is a lot of nominal plot in Harling's script, people get seduced and abandoned, fall in love, die, whatever, but since as writer-director he hasn't provided us with any reason to bother our heads about anyone's difficulties, it all seems pointless. "The Evening Star" has a TV feeling about it, but it doesn't resemble a promising pilot episode so much as the outline for a long and entirely misbegotten season.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual situations and brief strong language. Times guidelines: The situations are not terribly explicit.
'The Evening Star'
Shirley MacLaine: Aurora Greenway
Bill Paxton: Jerry Bruckner
Juliette Lewis: Melanie Horton
Miranda Richardson: Patsy Carpenter
Jack Nicholson: Garrett Breedlove
Rysher Entertainment presents a David Kirkpatrick production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Robert Harling. Producers David Kirkpatrick, Polly Platt, Keith Samples. Screenplay Robert Harling, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. Cinematographer Don Burgess. Editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly. Costumes Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Music William Ross. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Art director Richard L. Johnson. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.