Synopsis: A stand-up comic neglects her two daughters in the midst of her newfound fame.
Stars: Julie Kavner, Samantha Mathis, Gaby Hoffmann, Carrie Fisher, Dan Akyroyd
Director: Nora Ephron
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Shortly after writer/director Nora Ephron passed away in the summer of 2012 I began looking for This is My Life, her directorial debut from 1992. I’d seen it numerous times and even owned a copy on VHS but it was just nowhere to be found so I eventually forgot about it. Enjoying the films she wrote like Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally…, I was more interested in the films she directed.
I wasn’t about to revisit You’ve Got Mail mostly because the AOL age update to The Shop Around the Corner is so dated you’d need to be an amnesiac emerging from a time machine to really enjoy it. I also wasn’t up for the sappy but still warm to the touch PG-ness of Sleepless in Seattle. And even Madeline Khan’s presence in Mixed Nuts couldn’t get me to take that mess for a spin again. No…it had to be This is My Life or nothing.
Flash forward a few months later to a sleepy Sunday morning and I was browsing On Demand making the Sophie’s Choice between…well…Sophie’s Choice and some Bruce Willis movie when lo and behold there was This is My Life streaming for free. Jackpot! 93 minutes later I remembered why Ephron’s no-frills first feature was high on my list to see…and her name is Julie Kavner.
There seem to be two audiences that know Kavner. One is from her days playing sister to Valerie Harper on Rhoda and the other only recognizes Kavner as Marge, the animated matriarch on The Simpsons. Kavner (Radio Days) has rarely had a chance to let loose on screen, certainly never in a leading role which makes this bittersweet comedy a real gem.
Adapted by Ephron from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, This is My Life is the story of a department store cosmetics lady that wants to be a stand-up comedian. Raising two daughters as a single mother, she gets by by making due and making others laugh. When her star begins to rise and eventually takes off, mother and daughters get some hard lessons on the price of fame.
As is the case of most films about comedians, very little of the material is actually funny with Kavner’s character telling some pretty dusty jokes about the trials of being a single mother. (Zoinks!) It’s very hard to make material that works better live seem as immediate as being there and that’s one of the areas the film struggles through…but thankfully the rimshot jokes wind up playing second fiddle to the drama taking place offstage.
It’s easy to see why this film got lost in the shuffle at the box office. With no bankable star and a female heavy presence, audiences and studios didn’t know what to do with it so it flamed out quickly and landed on video soon after. Though it’s no work of art, there’s an assured charm to it all that makes even the more conventional emotional outburst (and there are probably two too many) work.
While Ephron had some true triumphs as a writer, her career as a director was spotty. Of the eight films she directed less than half are worth a second viewing and that’s being generous. Still, films like This is My Life aren’t likely to be made even in this day and age so this laughter through the tears melodrama is a worthwhile reminder of what made Ephron’s voice such a special one.