Imagine a cross between a backstage drama like Punchline and a sisterhood saga like Mermaids - that's Nora Ephron's directorial debut, This is my life, in a nutshell. Ephron, you may remember, wrote the script for the rather ordinary, if Oscar-nominated, When Harry Met Sally..., and in the past has borrowed vignettes from her life to make money and get even (her best seller Heartburn - later adapted by Ephron for Mike Nichols's movie - targeted ex-husband Carl Bernstein's infidelities). In this, her seminal career move, Ephron attempts to spin a story about a Jewish mother from Queens with two daughters, and the price of her rise to the top of the standup-comedy ladder. A score by Carly Simon puts a musical seal on the film's aesthetic and histrionic priorities. The result is sentimental, as you'd expect; yet strangely, what's missing is real sentiment. As for Ephron's directorial sensibility, while watching this movie, you may find yourself drifting disconcertedly back to the woebegone Seventies, era of burnt brassieres, woman-to-woman testimonials, and Martha Mitchell.
Big-nosed, long-limbed, and sky-scraping Julie Kavner plays a divorced cosmetician named Dottie (yes, she wears a warehouseful of dots), who works at Macy's on Queens Boulevard selling placenta-based face products to blue-haired grandmothers. Late at night, propped up in bed with her two daughters, sixteen-year-old Erica (Samantha Mathis) and ten-year-old Opal (Gaby Hoffman), Dottie also dreams of hitting the big time and making an appearance on The Tonight Show. Her warbled sales pitch at Macy's and the motherly repartee at home seen throughout the credits gives the audience a clue that Dottie is the borough's answer to Jackie Mason.
And she's a performer, all right: Dottie lays on the chicken fat pretty thick no matter where or with whom she is, and, as crazy as it seems, her efforts don't go unrewarded - she gets a taste of the gravy train. Her ascent to the microphone mountaintop is more ludicrous than Rupert Pupkin's in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy: Dottie's physical appearance evokes a polka-dotted pterodactyl and the material is as funny as Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator, but still Dottie headlines in Las Vegas, TV chat shows on "the coast," and seemingly across the country, to rave reviews and steady applause. In the process, she embarks on a relationship with a fellow named Moss (Dan Aykroyd), a corpulent, big-time agent who's affectionately called "The Moss." He nibbles and swallows bits of tissue paper in mirthful or miserable moments throughout the film (Ephron's idea of quirky humor). Dottie's career high predictably drives her emotionally depleted little girls insane; as Ephron quick-wittedly and insightfully strives to point out, adolescents all over America would readily forsake freedom, wealth, and fame in favor of marvelous things like authority, poverty, and anonymity.
To be sure, Julie Kavner and Dan Aykroyd are the wildest couple since Denis and Margaret Thatcher, yet they manage to convey a semblance of chemistry. But bespectacled Samantha Mathis, who plays Erica, must be the twitchiest and mud-ugliest young thespian since Amanda Plummer. That her character is meant to be an intellectual is of little help; we catch Erica lying in bed reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (nice idea - the hermaphroditic Mathis looks tubercular enough to be a patient of the Haus Berghof). At least Gaby Hoffman's Opal is sweet and inoffensive, though it's high time we endured less of child actors being asked to perform age ten as if that meant 60.
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And finally, there is Carly Simon's old-hat compositions and baritonal renditions for This is my life: In one song, she names things she loves, one by one - I Love Lucy, pumpernickel bread, the Statue of Liberty. Hearing this earaching, sensitive-liberal jive, performed by Carly with her habitual subtle bellow, it sure makes you wonder...were Bonanza, Wonder bread, and the John Birch Society really all that bad?
THIS IS MY LIFE
Directed by Nora Ephron; written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron based on the novel This Is Your Life by Meg Wolitzer; with Julie Kavner, Samantha Mathis, Gaby Hoffman, Carrie Fisher, and Dan Aykroyd.