Despite exceptional performances, 'This Is My Life' comes up short

March 13, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The title is almost one of the funniest jokes in "This Is My Life," because it represents the source of conflict in the movie: Whose life is it, anyway?

Is it mama's life? Mama -- or Dottie Ingels, played by Julie Kavner -- is a divorced Bloomingdale's cosmetics clerk who desperately wants to be a stand-up comedian and can't help but turn her make-up demonstrations into mini-talk shows.

Or is it daughter Erica's life? Erica, played by Samantha Mathis, is just 16, beginning to have an intellectual and a social life, or, more importantly, her own life. She is at that delicate moment of adolescence, an equipoise between wretched self-consciousness and wretched self-hatred. The last thing she needs is her mother on the tube in a fried chicken commercial or on a talk show, telling Erica jokes.

In fact in one of the movie's wittiest strokes, the two frequently argue in the voice-over narration as to who exactly is going to tell the tale of Dottie's ascension and Erica's isolation and what becomes of them.

It's great to see Kavner, beloved as Rhoda's sister all those years ago on the tube and ever since an engaging character actress, move to the center of a project. She's certainly able to carry it: her Dottie is a fully rounded, deeply engaging person. We see the motherly instincts yet also the vanity and the urge to perform. And she and Mathis work together brilliantly.

It's an edgy, tentative relationship, much like the real thing. Erica always suspects her mother's secret agenda will put her second; and often, it does. Mathis gives one of the best adolescent performances in recent memory, her resentment and rebelliousness seething in uncontrollable opposition to her love for her mother and her desire for a stable family.

But the movie doesn't quite work. Nora Ephron, who directed from a script she wrote with her sister Delia out of a novel by Meg Wolitzer, who happens to be the novelist Hilma Woltizer's daughter, hasn't paid enough attention to the forms of show biz herself: the movie is all set-up and no punch line.

We keep waiting for something big to happen, and it never does, and then the movie is over, petering out in a sad little epiphany by which Erica and her younger sister Opel (played by an irrepressible Gaby Hoffman) head out to find their real father.

But the movie's worst stroke is that it never convinces us of the reality of Kavner's career as stand-up comedian. She's just never funny when she's performing, and the film's evocation of her acceleration to the top -- from amateur comedy clubs to talk shows to her own series -- is clearly meant to suggest Roseanne Barr's or Phyllis Diller's. But those woman had unique comic voices; by contrast "This Is My Life" doesn't come close to working when the jokes are as lame as the one the Ephrons put into Dottie's mouth. Wasn't there a comedy doctor in the house?

'This Is My Life'

Starring Julie Kavner.

Directed by Nora Ephron.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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