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Aurora Bore Ya Silly

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 (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 who have known her for decades to persist in referring to 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: For instance, 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. No such complications intrude upon this rather genteel adaptation--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, and he, too, was unable to corral what was left into anything of much interest.)

Harling's other screenplays, Soapdish and The First Wives Club, mainly steamrollered subtlety in favor of standard hack-work gags. 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 aggravation 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 that they're "homages" to--Brooks's film, as if nothing else could happen in Aurora's life that could match what transpired 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 such as the Lethal Weapon series or Stallone flicks; when you're creating a redux of an Oscar-honored film, however, you should aspire to a little more.

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 in whom the kids confide more than they do 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. (It's a comment on just how stuck the entertainment industry is 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 the screen, Paxton provides the movie with a much-needed quirky spark.

As the movie plods along, tragedy and triumph swap for time on center stage as mechanically as tag-team wrasslers, using brute force to bully the audience into numb submission. Gradually, everyone is convinced 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. (Nicholson was enticed to take the role when the filmmakers provided him tickets to the local NBA game between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets.)

MacLaine may be the only one on hand 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, though 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 get to the point that for Aurora, it was indeed a wonderful, if terribly messy, life. (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. Based on the book by Larry McMurtry. Written and directed by Robert Harling. With Shirley MacLaine, Bill Paxton, Juliette Lewis, Miranda Richardson, George Newburn, Marion Ross, Mackenzie Astin and Jack Nicholson.