Marking the directorial debut of popular writer Nora Ephron, THIS IS MY LIFE is a low-key, likable story of mother-daughter conflict. Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner) is a single mother living in Queens who dreams of being a stand-up comedienne and tries out routines on customers at the Macy's makeup counter where she works. She gets her chance when her Aunt...read more
Marking the directorial debut of popular writer Nora Ephron, THIS IS MY LIFE is a low-key, likable story of mother-daughter conflict.
Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner) is a single mother living in Queens who dreams of being a stand-up comedienne and tries out routines on customers at the Macy's makeup counter where she works. She gets her chance when her Aunt Harriet (Estelle Harris) suddenly passes away, leaving Dottie the house
where she's been living with her daughters, sixteen-year-old Erica (Samantha Mathis) and ten-year-old Opal (Gaby Hoffman). Dottie decides to sell the place, move with her daughters to a Manhattan apartment, and use the rest of the money Harriet's left her to live on while she attempts to make it
on the stand-up circuit. She manages to land an agent, Claudia Curtis (Carrie Fisher), who sends her out on tour while the girls are tended to by Dottie's aspiring comic friends.
The girls, particularly Erica, become incensed that their mother seems to be putting her ascending career before their needs. Erica seeks solace with her new boyfriend Jordan, (Danny Zorn), but still can't hide her anger when Dottie comes home to attend Opal's school play. Attempting to placate
her kids, Dottie invites them to join her in Las Vegas, where she has a major club date. But Erica blows up at Dottie when the latter uses occasions from her daughter's life as material during a talk-show appearance, and both girls are startled when it appears their mother has taken a lover. At
first, they believe the new man is a young stage technician that Opal's gotten a crush on, but they're even more mortified when they discover that he is in fact Arnold Moss (Dan Aykroyd), Claudia's boss and a major player on the comedy circuit.
When Dottie and the girls return to New York, Erica convinces Opal to run away with her to find their father, whom she's tracked down through a private detective. Taking a train to upstate New York, they find their father, Norm (Louis DiBianco), now remarried and, after an awkward visit, realize
they can no longer be part of his life. Upon returning to Manhattan, they are greeted by Dottie, who was terribly worried about them and was alerted to their return by Norm's new wife. The girls agree to try to adapt to their mother's new life and impending marriage to Moss, and she in turn agrees
to give them more attention.
Nora Ephron is an acclaimed essayist (Wallflower at the Orgy and Crazy Salad), novelist (the roman-a-clef Heartburn) and screenwriter (SILKWOOD, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY ...), who cowrote THIS IS MY LIFE with her humorist sister Delia. There's little doubt why she responded to Meg Wolitzer's novel
This Is Your Life. The Ephron sisters themselves grew up living in the shadow of celebrity parents (the play and screenwriting team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron), and this movie, unlike the recent PUNCHLINE, deals less with the milieu of the stand-up comedy scene than the tensions created in the
family of one aspiring performer.
Kavner (AWAKENINGS, SHADOWS AND FOG) is just right as Dottie, who ties in a gimmick (polka-dot dresses) with her name and strives to further her career to the point where she loses sight of her family responsibilities. That the character never loses the audience's sympathy is a tribute to Kavner's
skill, and she also displays sharp comic timing both in her club scenes and in many moments off the stage as well. But the movie is only half her story; it's told as much from the daughters' point of view, particularly that of Erica, and Mathis shines in her role. A 180-degree turn from the
punkish Nora she played so well in PUMP UP THE VOLUME, Erica is a more morose, insecure character, and Mathis portrays her with a great deal of sympathy and assurance. But she has her comic side too, and the scene in which she and her boyfriend embark on fumbling first sex together is played
skillfully enough (by both Mathis and the very funny Zorn) to keep it from becoming embarrassing.
If the movie has a major flaw, it's that Dottie's climb to the top happens too fast to be completely convincing. She seems to hit the big time in an awful hurry, and although her routines are funny, they're not the kind of groundbreaking material that would seem likely to rocket someone from the
cosmetic counter to "The Tonight Show" in a matter of months. There seems to be very little struggle involved, and the lousy material of Dottie's fellow aspiring comics is an obvious ploy to make her own "talent" stand out even more. It's a shame that this facet of the film isn't played with the
realism of the dramatic scenes between Dottie and her daughters; if it were, THIS IS MY LIFE might have gone beyond the diverting but modest entertainment it is and wound up a true gem. (Profanity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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