MOVIE REVIEW : 'Life': The Human Side of Celebrityhood

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nora Ephron, who makes her directorial debut with the very smart and likable comedy "This Is My Life" (AMC Century 14), is a writer who likes to look at the little stuff--the stray, mundane, revelatory details that other people miss--in the midst of the big, glittering worlds everyone wants to crash: Washington, show biz, the Manhattan intelligentsia. "Wallflower at the Orgy" is the title of one of her collections, and that cozily ironic self-deprecation is revealing. She may be a wallflower, but she made it to the orgy. That off-slant perspective on celebrity permeates "This Is My Life"--based on Meg Wolitzer's novel "This Is Your Life." In it, we see the world of talk-show TV, Las Vegas clubs, the glamour-glitz sites. But we see them from the edges: the perspective of two young girls whose mother zooms to success in stand-up comedy.

The mother, Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), is 40ish, a saleswoman from Ozone Park in Queens, and her daughters, Erica and Opal, are about 16 and 10, respectively. To a degree, their life is fixed. Dottie's comedy is just another dream that won't pan out--except that in this story, it does pan out. After her aunt's death, an inheritance and a move to Manhattan, Dottie is plucked to stardom by two super-agents, played with glint-eyed L.A. swank by Carrie Fisher and Dan Aykroyd.

As show biz consumes her, family tiffs spring up and "Life" makes sport of the arty, left-wing milieu the family moves into, with its school pageant based on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" and casual attitudes toward sex.

Ephron and her sister and script partner, Delia Ephron, structure "Life" around two perspectives: mother's and daughters'. But early on, the daughters take over the movie--and "Life" really hits its mother-lode in the chemistry of these two: Samantha Mathis as Erica and Gaby Hoffmann as Opal.

As siblings, they don't look much alike, but they mesh beautifully. Opal is a warm-eyed little charmer, calm and accepting, and Erica is stringy, bespectacled and intense, an eternal malcontent. (She looks more like a sister to bulimic Jane Horrocks in "Life Is Sweet.")

There's a reason for the disparity: Later in the film, Ephron shows us that Erica is, in a way, her father's daughter, and Opal her mother's. And it's Erica who becomes incensed at her mother's absences, and the way she mines all their life experiences for jokes.

However, "This Is My Life" has a big flaw--which it manages to overcome. Dottie Ingels never seems like the sensation the movie makes her out to be. Not because Kavner, a mainstay of "The Simpsons" and Woody Allen's recent movies, lacks the stuff, but because the Ephrons haven't given her enough. The material in Dottie's routines isn't particularly funny--it's standard-issue housewife wry--and Dottie isn't played with the naked intensity a comedy sensation from nowhere might have, the kind of attitude that would transform the lines, like Roseanne Arnold's proletarian punch or Rodney Dangerfield's no-respect paranoia.

Ultimately, the movie slides over this weakness, because Kavner interacts so well with the girls. There's something wonderfully earthy in the way Ephron lets these performances flower. They aren't forced or showy; they're as natural as breathing. Throughout, Ephron's directorial style is neat and discreet, the equivalent of the careful prose that conceals her zingers. She lets songwriter Carly Simon, who did the score, take care of epiphanies.

But there are also ways in which the wealthier Ephrons, don't seem to connect with this Queens family.

That's why "This Is My Life" (rated PG-13), as much as Dottie's routines, isn't as brilliant as it could have been. It isn't desperate enough, open enough. But the movie gives us something good anyway: the joys and humors of sisterhood, as remembered by the Ephrons and realized, winningly, by Mathis and Hoffmann.

'This Is My Life'

Julie Kavner: Dottie Ingels

Samantha Mathis: Erica Ingels

Gaby Hoffmann: Opal Ingels

Dan Aykroyd: Arnold Moss

A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Lynda Obst production. Director Nora Ephron. Producer Obst. Executive producers Patricia K. Meyer, Carole Isenberg. Screenplay Nora & Delia Ephron. Cinematographer Bobby Byrne. Editor Robert Reitano. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Music Carly Simon. Production design David Chapman. Art director Barbara Matis. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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