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‘This Is My Life’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1992

"This Is My Life" is sweetly schmaltzy comedy from first-time director Nora Ephron, a gentle burp of a movie from the heretofore dyspeptic author of "Heartburn" and "When Harry Met Sally . . ." Writing with her sister Delia, Ephron abandons edible and sexual politics to explore the subtler complexities of a driven comedienne's conflict with her two needy daughters. Though the film is based on a Meg Wolitzer novel, the Ephrons suffuse it with their own sisterly and motherly insights.

Julie Kavner, the voice of TV's self-effacing Marge Simpson, brings a polar approach to parenting here as Dottie, a department store dragon lady who pursues a career in comedy with the initial support of daughters Erica (Samantha Mathis) and Opal (Gaby Hoffmann). Once her biggest fans, the girls become resentful when Dottie's career takes off thanks to high-powered agent Arnold Moss (Dan Aykroyd). They've always believed in their mother's dreams, but a mommy on the laugh track is about as much fun as a punctured whoopee cushion.

Erica, a sulky teen, and her sunny 10-year-old sister are left in the care of a series of wacky baby sitters -- all aspiring comics who practice their acts for the girls -- while Dottie goes on the road with "the Moss" and his urbane assistant (Carrie Fisher). Now they only see their mother when she's doing bad jokes about their personal lives on TV. When Dottie finally returns home for a visit, the girls give her a cool welcome. "If you give kids a choice -- your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in ecstasy in Hawaii -- they'll choose suicide in the next room," observes Dottie.

It's her life too, but the girls don't get it. For Erica, gawkily coming of age, Dottie's absence happens at a particularly pivotal point in her life. A wry malcontent who chews on her hair when she's upset, Erica finds comfort in a first romance with the equally awkward Jordan (Danny Zorn). Together they lose their virginity in his childhood bed, its headboard painted in a cowboy motif with a lariat that spells Jordan. "That was it?" asks Erica, the very picture of a baffled initiate.

Burgeoning with telling moments and small flourishes, "This Is My Life" is decidedly well-appointed when it comes to dramatic accessories. It's the grand scheme that's missing -- and in lieu of that, a grande dame. Kavner is an able performer, sure-footed and sturdy as a Grand Canyon donkey, but she doesn't light up the dark corners of the screen. She's perfectly likable as the mother-comedienne, but Samantha Mathis (who also played a moody teen in "Pump Up the Volume") is the movie's endocrine system. It's got juice thanks to Mathis and pluck courtesy of young Gaby ("Uncle Buck's" niece) -- the movie's Macaulay Culkin quotient. Aykroyd's performance is low-energy, but then he does play a character nicknamed "the Moss." Still he grows on you, as does this endearingly modest family affair.

"This Is My Life" is rated PG-13 for sensuality.

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