Nora Ephron's new movie, This Is My Life, is a warm, often moving, tale of the relationship between Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), a harried divorcee, and her two daughters, sixteen-year-old Erica (Samantha Mathis) and ten-year-old Opal (Gaby Hoffmann). The first half hour of the movie is unnecessarily slow and pedestrian. But This Is My Life works so hard at winning our sympathy that, by the end, we surrender to its undeniable charms.
Loosely adapted from Meg Wolizer's l988 novel, Ephron and her co screenwriter-sister Delia Ephron present a yenta, a saleswoman in the cosmetics department at Macy's, who ambitiously pursues her longtime dream of becoming a standup comic. Stumbling on a small inheritance from her dead aunt, Dottie moves her family from Ozone Park, Oueens to Manhattan. In no time–and this is a major weakness of the script–she goes from amateurish gigs in her bedroom to national celebrity. And while making her way to the big time, she neglects her two daughters, leaving them in the hands of her goofy and frustrated comedian friends.
Defying realism, This Is My Life is no story of struggle, hardship and survival, but of dreams come true. Worse yet, the film's sensibility is that of a TV sit-com. Shrewdly conceived, there are many good one-liners and quite a few hilarious scenes. The best of these is the awkward teen-sex scene between Erica and her boyfriend (nicely played by Danny Zorn). But there are also inexplicable gags, such as an elementary school pageant, titled T.S. Eliot Night. Is there such a thing And there are a number of disingenuous scenes, such as the meeting between the two daughters and the father who deserted them.
The movie's biggest flaw is that Dottie never persuades us that she is the sensational talent the story makes her out to be. Dottie suffers from the same problem that the Sally Field character (another working-class housewife-standup comic) had in Punchline (l988)–her routines are just not funny enough. They lack the raw intensity and desperate quality of, say, a Roseanne Arnold's punch.
With a shrewd eye on the box-office, attempting to draw both middle-aged women and children, the movie shows the world of TV talk shows and Las Vegas clubs from both the perspectives of the mother and her daughters. There are too many shifts in point of views. However, it is only when the daughters are at center screen that the movie rings true and resonates. The two daughters play to and complement each other almost perfectly. Opal is the calmer and more forgiving; and the bespectacled Erica is appropriately rambunctious and intense. Erica is furious at her mother's absences and embarrassed over the way she mines the family's private experiences for jokes in her act.
In her directorial debut, Ephron demonstrates greater concern for acting than visual style. To her credit, she has encouraged most of her actors to give natural and open rather than glitzy performances. There is great chemistry between the two girls, Mathis and Hoffmann, who not only dominate the film but also have its best scenes. The film belongs to them and their many small, but revelatory, moments. Watching the two sisters interact, we do get a lively sense of the joys and pains of growing up with no father and a wacky showbiz mother.
However, in her career breakthrough role, Kavner is monotonous. Some of it is the writing and some of it is Kavner's lack of commanding screen personality. Kavner has done much better work in smaller roles, as second banana in Woody Allen's films. The problem in this movie is we seem to be watching Kavner, not Dottie, a cumulative result of too much narration and the familiarity of her voice, as Marge Simpson in the popular TV show. Too bad Bette Midler turned down the role–she would have been a much more convincing Dottie.
Ephron shows no evidence of a distinct directorial style in This is My Life. The movie has the flat look of a TV sit-com. Her compositions are too static; the camera doesn't move much, even when the scenes scream for close-ups. Indeed, the climax, a big emotional confrontation between Dottie and her daughters, is not only poorly directed but also ineptly framed.
This Is My Life could have been a better movie if it had more depth and emotional resonance. But it is too cute, almost desperate to entertain its viewers. And the resolution of how Dottie pulls her disintegrating family together lacks any credibility. Though highly likable, there is no particular reason to watch the movie on the big screen; it is a perfect TV (and video) fare.