Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Because it’s Simpsons Week at The A.V. Club, we’re recommending films featuring key contributors to the series, from actors to writers to a certain famed composer.
Julie Kavner is best known for the iconic voice, gravelly yet warm, that she’s provided for Marge Simpson since the late ’80s. This should make her live-action lead performance in This Is My Life jarring: Her character, Dottie Ingals, has plenty of dialogue (and monologues) as a chatty aspiring stand-up comedian. But after a few minutes of settling into a New York accent and hustle, Kavner distinguishes Dottie from her animated alter ego. Though Dottie is also a loving mother, to daughters Erica (Samantha Mathis) and Opal (Gaby Hoffmann), her vocal rhythms have more in common with Woody Allen.
This makes sense; at the time of the film’s 1992 release, Kavner was in the middle of a decade-plus run as a frequent supporting player for Allen. Nora Ephron, making her directorial debut after years as a screenwriter, also takes some cues from the Woodman, particularly the way she lets several scenes play out in long takes. The film follows Dottie as she makes the leap from makeup counter girl to full-time stand-up to a national stage, and the toll this transition takes on her family life—and, particularly, on teenage Erica. Mathis has as much screen time as Kavner, and works through a number of mild but well-wrought coming-of-age traumas.
Naturally, this includes eventual mortification over the way her mother incorporates her life into her work. Dottie’s stand-up isn’t especially hilarious, but it at least appears to contain coherent routines; elsewhere, the movie has some bizarre ideas about what other aspiring stand-ups might include in their acts. Without reading the source novel by Meg Wolitzer (who later saw great acclaim for her 2013 book The Interestings), it’s difficult to tell whether the comedians who act more like low-grade performance artists spring from Wolitzer or from the Upper West Side insulation of the Ephrons. (Nora’s sister Delia co-adapted the screenplay.)
But the movie’s relationships—and several of its offstage one-liners and observations—are smart and specific, as is the low-key sniping between the two sisters. Before it ends somewhat abruptly, This Is My Life addresses its central conflict with honesty and even-handed humor: There’s some selfishness in Dottie’s grab for success as well as in her children’s insistence that she should stay home more often. Besides featuring a rare star turn from Kavner, it’s also one of Ephron’s best movies as a director.
Availability: This Is My Life is available on DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store/library, and for rental or purchase through the major digital services.