Tremendously moving, often very funny, and bursting at the seams with life, both good and bad. No one is a hero or a villain, every character is just a screwed up human being trying their best, often failing, but picking themselves back up and trying again.
At the core this is the study of a very prickly mother daughter relationship, but it branches out to cover the men in their lives, friendships with other women, etc. The performances are just about universally superb. Some splashy and fun (Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine), others just slightly lower key but still just slightly bigger than life in that good, movie way (Debra Winger), and still others are so simple and quiet they routinely get overlooked, but are little gems as well (Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow).
The film has a wonderful way of never going quite where you expect it, as it traces 30 years of life. Serious scenes turn funny, funny scenes end up making you cry, and no one ends up where they, or we, would have guessed. Especially in more recent, revisionist reviews, the film is often attacked for being sappy or melodramatic, but the older I get the more I see that life itself can be sappy and melodramatic, and if those elements are dealt with honestly they can translate real emotions, and can be part of a terrific film.
The only nit-pick I have is a few of the very small roles are clichés (e.g. the upper-class ‘young ladies’ Winger’s character meets in New York). But when that’s the worst you can find to say about a 130 minute film, you’re in a pretty great place. One hell of a feature debut for James L. Brooks.