• U.S.

Unsentimental Educations

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

THIS IS MY LIFE Directed by Nora Ephron

Screenplay by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron

“Oooo-ow, Mom!” Most of us know that despairing wail, the cry of offspring on whom a parent has inadvertently visited heartrending shame: when we have overdressed or underdressed for some public outing with the kids in tow or cracked a dumb joke or otherwise called unwarranted attention to ourselves.

Most parents, however, do not aspire to careers in stand-up comedy. Or actually rise in the field as Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner) does in This Is My Life. Dottie, God help her, decides that a polka-dot wardrobe will be her trademark. She blithely uses material in her act from the life she shares with her daughters, teenage Erica (Samantha Mathis) and 10-year-old Opal (Gaby Hoffmann). And, not least of her sins, she falls in love with her agent, Arnold Moss (Dan Aykroyd), who nervously chews Kleenex. Gross.

Dottie is, in some ways, a Stella Dallas for the ’90s — gutsy, good- hearted, slightly vulgar. And a very caring single parent. Like Stella, who broadly symbolized another generation’s sentiments about motherhood, Dottie encapsulates those feelings — much more ambivalent — as well as anyone has in recent popular entertainment.

What a difference a few decades make. Stella finally had no choice but to live for, and ultimately through, her daughter. Dottie has no choice but to live for herself and hope her happiness will buoy the kids along. Stella’s saving gracelessness was lack of awareness; she never realized what a ridiculous figure she cut. Dottie’s saving grace is full ironic awareness of the chance she is taking. As she rises from cosmetics-counter tummler to the Carson show to Las Vegas, she works this gag into her act: “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, believe me.”

Kavner, a Woody Allen favorite and the voice of Marge Simpson, has the right moves onstage and off. She’s all those cable-comedy-club performers brazening out their terrors. And all our working moms doing the same thing. It’s a terrific performance, brash but always in touch with a certain vulnerability.

But the strength of this charming and quietly confident movie — Nora Ephron’s first as a director — is that it never turns into a single act. Even the minor characters are sharply written. Dottie’s kids are fully her equals in its structure, always giving as good as they get. Erica’s the silent, watchful one. Little Opal’s the pert mistress of the wise-child zinger. In fact, the film’s two best passages belong to them. When Erica takes as her first lover the squarest boy in school (that’ll show Mom), their struggle with the logistics of lovemaking is a fresh, sweetly hilarious exploration of familiar territory. And the girls’ search for their runaway dad — he turns out to be in produce, in Albany, and hopelessly inarticulate — is both adorable and unsentimental. At a moment when many movies aspire to the former quality, very few attain the latter. This one does.

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