Monday Editor’s Pick: This Is My Life (1992)

by on March 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Mon April 2 at 6:50*, 9:30 at AMcinématek[Program & Tix]
*Q&A between director/co-screenwriter Nora Ephron and Lena Dunham

 

BAM gives Tiny Furniture and upcoming HBO show Girls 25-year-old wunderkind Lena Dunham carte blanche, and she chooses to celebrate the more nuanced depictions of female bonding in “Hey Girfriend!” Highlights include a bona fide repertory screening of The Craft, The Last Days of Disco (attended by Whit Stillman and star Chris Eigerman), and a sneak preview of Amy Heckerling’s glorious return Vamps, with the goddess behind Clueless (also screening) mastermind on hand for both.
 
Says Dunham:

It’s no secret that there’s long been a dearth of realistic female relationships onscreen. Sure, we see girlfriends: getting drinks, spoonfeeding each other post-breakup Häagen-Dazs. We see mothers and daughters either forming inspirational alliances or being catty as beauty queens. But what of the female relationships we all know and love, inspiring in their tenacity and unparalleled in their complexity? Tender, acidic, vacillating shades of jealousy and support. I’m thrilled to work with BAM to curate a series of films with this kind of scope and insight into girl-on-girl action. Some classic, some under seen, some genre-fun. Coincidentally, these are the movies that made me want to make movies.

 
In the underseen category lies Nora Ephron’s directorial debut, surely due a reappraisal. One of the founding mothers of the contemporary chick flick, Ephron will appear at the 6:50 show to chat with Dunham.
 

Michael Wilmington for the Los Angeles Times:

Nora Ephron, who makes her directorial debut with the very smart and likable comedy “This Is My Life,” 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.

 
There’s something wonderfully earthy in the way Ephron lets the 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.

 

 
Rita Kempley for the Washington Post:

“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). 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.
 
Now they only see their mother when she’s doing bad jokes about their personal lives on TV. 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. Burgeoning with telling moments and small flourishes, “This Is My Life” is decidedly well-appointed when it comes to dramatic accessories. Samantha Mathis 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.

 

 

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd are narcotics which have destroyed countless families, as documented in shelves of show-biz biographies. “This is My Life” tells the story of yet another family that has to deal with a performer’s ego, but it’s a kindler, gentler ego, and at times we even sympathize with it.
 
The movie unfolds along predictable lines. What makes it work is the attention to character quirks. I enjoyed, for example, the way the screenplay avoids the usual cliches about actors and managers, and supplies instead a chic, cigarette-waving talent scout (Carrie Fisher) and her boss, a famous agent (Dan Aykroyd) who is named Arnold Moss, is referred to by the girls as The Moss, and eats paper napkins for a pastime.
 
There have been show-biz movies told from the point of view of neglected children, and others told from the POV of parents who hardly have time for their children, and of course there was “Mommie Dearest,” about show-biz kids who would have preferred abandonment. But what’s new about “This is My Life” is that it’s an argument between the two points of view – with the mother and her daughters each demanding their own rights. There is humor in this approach, and also some truth.

 

 
Janet Maslin for The New York Times:

Making her directorial debut with “This Is My Life,” Nora Ephron does exactly what she did on the page. She shapes every detail of this witty, picture-perfect slice of New York life to fit a single vision, one that even at its most generous and funny manages to retain a penetrating clarity. The results are a memorable portrait.
 
Dottie’s vague monstrousness does nothing to diminish her charm. “This Is My Life” is much too knowing about show business and ambition to regard monstrousness as a character flaw. First seen at the cosmetics counter at Macy’s, where she turns every sales pitch into an opportunity to hone her comic potential, Dottie has always been ready to joke about anything, no matter how grim. Even the death of a beloved aunt becomes funny when Dottie explains that the deceased collapsed in her underwear in the dressing room at Loehmann’s and had to be given new clothes before she could be taken away. “And when they carried Aunt Harriet out, she set off all the store alarms — really!” Dottie says.
 
The authenticity of “This Is My Life” lies in the small, wry touches that are as evident here as they are in Ms. Ephron’s prose. Impeccably cast, the film offers brief but hilarious glimpses of instantly recognizable New York types, like the brittle, super-sophisticated career woman played by Carrie Fisher (a fine comic caricaturist who is funny right down to her wardrobe and her way of smoking.) Danny Zorn is precisely on target as the kind of earnest Manhattan private school student who says “muchas gracias” to the person handing him lunch in the cafeteria. Estelle Harris has a few funny moments as Aunt Harriet in her pre-Loehmann’s days.

 

 
Ephron recounts her first feature to Bonnie Rothman Morris:

“I really honestly didn’t have a clue. I knew nothing. I’m so embarrassed now about the things I didn’t know.” During the shoot, Ephron felt a rush of satisfaction about her work that she hadn’t previously experienced as a screenwriter.
 
“There’s a moment when the two little girls see their mother (on TV) and they started jumping on the bed. I was standing in the closet in that bedroom and watching them go in and out of frame on the monitor and I thought, ‘Oh my God, you’ve done this!’ And it was like a truth, like realizing I had told the truth about a thing which is called how kids feel when their mom or dad has a success. It was on the page but you could’ve missed it, you know?”

 

 
Ephron in interview with Andy Marx, also for the Los Angeles Times:

“This material is the thing that made me more dying to direct than anything,” says Ephron, between sips of iced tea, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I knew that because of how I related to the book on so many levels, it was the perfect project for me.”
 
“If you went to my mother with something horrible that had happened to you,” says Ephron, “she would listen to it and nod sympathetically and then say, ‘Everything is copy.’ What she meant was that something can be horrible, but eventually a writer can make something out of it. She taught me in those three words the fundamental basis of humor–if you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your joke and you become the hero of the episode.” According to Ephron, much of that philosophy was right there in Wolitzer’s novel.
 
According to most, Ephron, who shot the film in nine weeks in Toronto, Manhattan and Las Vegas, ran the set like a veteran director. “She had everything so well-planned out,” says Kavner, “that she had time to sit around and do crossword puzzles.” Obst says Ephron was made for the job. “Nora will tell you what to order for dinner,” she says, “so she certainly had no problem telling the costume designer why a character should be wearing a dress instead of a pants suit.”
 
And like the screenwriters-turned-directors before her, Ephron feels it was her writing career that prepared her for her directorial debut. “There are three things about directing a movie,” she says. “One is, you better have a pretty good script. The second is, you better not screw up the casting, because you can’t survive that. The third thing is knowing where the shot is. And if you write the movie, believe me, you know where the shot is.”

 

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