Retro Movie Review: 'Endless Love' (1981)

Endless Love Martin Hewitt David Axelrod Brooke Shields Jade Butterfield Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

One of those movies you have to see just to say you watched it, “Endless Love,” tells the dramatic tale of two lovelorn teenagers and the dangerous obsession that consumes their families. Looking back at Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel through the eyes of current standards, aspects of the film have not held up well.

The overall melodramatic ambiance of the film makes it hard to take entirely seriously. Its most enduring attribute continues to be the soundtrack, namely Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ eponymous theme song (“Endless Love”). As a movie, its redeeming value rests with the important discussion it provokes about teen love.

Through the looking glass, “Endless Love” has valuable lessons that resonate, although its purpose to shine a light on that subject is unintended. The plot centers around Jade (Brooke Shields) and David’s (Martin Hewitt) infatuation, which they swear is true love.

Jade’s parents are laid back, new agers who believe in letting their children run wild. They throw lavish parties that invite their underage kids to behave with impropriety. So, it comes as no surprise when Jade and David take their relationship to the next level: full-blown physical intimacy.

Jade’s parents share vastly different reactions to this revelation. For her mother (Shirley Knight), who herself harbors a fixation on David, she finds it so exciting that she plays voyeur, living vicariously through the exploits of her 15-year-old daughter.

For Jade’s father, learning of his daughter’s activities is the wake-up call he needs to begin implementing stricter parenting regulations. The dad (Mr. Butterfield) promptly orders a 30-day restrictive order on contact between the young lovers. From there, David makes a rash decision out of jealous spite that damages his life and forever changes those of his family and Jade’s.

On the surface, “Endless Love” is an over-the-top, histrionic piece that qualifies as a slightly guilty pleasure if you do not take it seriously. Its atmosphere is that of an alternate universe where reasoning is thrown out of the window so unadulterated nonsense can take the helm.

Jade’s parents allow her absolute freedom, and by the time her father pulls back the reins, uncomfortable with how far the situation has devolved, it is too late. While it is true that he should not be surprised by the consequences of his parenting style, it is better too late to act than never at all, and his springing into action is the right move.

Lacking his wife's support for obvious reasons (she wants David in her life any way she can have him), his son is the only one who champions and supports his father's plight, although his motivations for doing so are murky. This is “Romeo and Juliet” circa 1981.

In the world of “Endless Love,” everyone comes off a tad shady, except for Jade, who openly displays so much overwrought emotion that it is clear she is not holding anything back. Hardly anyone in the movie exhibits the behavior of someone acting logically or with sound rationale. They thrash around with hollow cries of sensational torment.

The implications of the film are troubling and diverge heavily from its source material’s message. When contrasted with current movie-dom, David does not come across that crazy, and his behavior does not translate as the antics of a pure madman. However, his actions are clearly close to those of someone unstable.

There is purposeful sanitizing that abounds when it comes to the characterization of his state of mind. “Endless Love” hints that his mental frailty is actually a manifestation of reactionary psychosis instead of having pre-existed in dormancy. The latter of which makes more sense.

Looking back, “Endless Love” offers a key glimpse at the era’s emerging talents. James Spader, in his second screen appearance, brilliantly plays Jade’s smarmy brother to the hilt and a brief turn by Tom Cruise is fun to behold. As a piece of pop culture, the movie remains relevant.

In the end, “Endless Love” is not about true love. It is about obsession, teen fixation, and parental accountability. The fault with the movie rests in its belief that it is anything but. It is an infatuation story and a cautionary illustration of how the star-crossed lovers caught so firmly in romance’s blinding grip can bring irreparable tragedy to those that are outside of their love bubble. Rating: 6.3/10