That wisecracking ball of fire onstage is Dottie Ingels, a divorced mother hellbent on chucking her job at Macy's cosmetics counter in Queens, New York, and making it big as a stand-up comic. As played by Julie Kavner of TV's Rhoda, Tracey Ullman Show and Simpsons (she's the raspy voice of Marge), Dottie embodies a common dilemma: Her ambition to have her "turn" means she gets more chances to neglect her two daughters – Erica (Samantha Mathis), 16, and Opal (Gaby Hoffmann), 10 – and screw up their lives.
So far, so predictable. At first glance, This Is My Life looks like a made-for-TV quickie masquerading as filmmaking. But the question of what it's doing on the big screen pales next to the knottier question of why it was chosen to open the esteemed Sundance Film Festival in January. Founded by Robert Redford in 1981, this annual Utah event is meant to "enhance the artistic vitality" of American independent film far from the pressures of the marketplace. But This Is My life is a mainstream movie from Twentieth Century Fox, home of Home Alone.
Is Sundance selling out? Hardly. Don't judge This Is My Life from its studio label. Nora Ephron, Oscar nominated for her scripts for Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally... doesn't go in for comfy trifles. Neither does her sister De-lia Ephron, whose books include the cheeky Funny Sauce. In adapting the Meg Wolitzer novel This Is Your Life (note the switch from Your to My in the Ephron version), the sisters take wicked glee in subverting a familiar genre, bringing it more in line with their own darker and nippier idiosyncrasies. Where else would you find a school that celebrates "Kafka Day" and a play in which the tykes recite "The Hollow Men," by T.S. Eliot?
This Is My Life also marks Nora Ephron's first crack at directing, and she makes a cleanly executed and pungently comic job of it. She doesn't show off with the camera, though cinematographer Bobby Byrne (Bull Durham) provides a slickly polished surface. What she does show is an astonishing assurance with long takes in which the action and the laughs develop out of the characters. As always, she uses her ironic edge to cut to the nerve. It's an auspicious debut; you sense Ephron is just starting to stretch her muscles as a director and is eyeing other moldy rules in need of breaking.
There's no use pretending that Ephron is immune to the great god box office. New directors, especially women directors, don't work too often if their first effort doesn't cough up some profit. But Ephron rarely stoops to being ingratiating. Strike 1 against her in male-dominated Hollywood is that she's made a film with women – sister Delia, producer Lynda Obst, composer Carly Simon. Strike 2 is that she's made a film about women. That subject is as tough a sell as some of the other notable festival entries this year: Swoon (about homophobia), My Crasy Life (about Samoan street gangs in L.A.) and The Waterdance (about physical-rehab centers). Unless movies feature female killers (Terminator 2) or outlaws (Thelma and Louise), the public's not buying. In short, This Is My Life, with a $10 million budget (less than half the industry norm) and no mega-stars, is fighting an uphill battle. But if Sundance isn't blowing smoke through the ears of its corporate sponsors, the festival remains dedicated to "the writer's story and the director's vision." On those terms, This Is My Life (entered out of competition, given its high profile) deserves its place on the roster with the other mavericks.
The first thing you notice about Kavner's Dottie Ingels is that she's not the homebody type who always puts her kids first. Playtime usually involves the girls' helping Mom write material for her act. When Aunt Harriet (Estelle Harris) dies and leaves Dottie her house in Queens (the family's been freeloading there anyway), Dottie sells the place and takes an apartment in Manhattan. Uprooting her family is a small price to pay for being closer to the clubs and TV auditions. Proximity also gives Dottie a chance to find free baby sitters in her comedy pals – nimbly played by Marita Geraghty, Bob Nelson, Welker White and Kathy Ann Najimy. Ephron deftly captures the mix of joy and suicidal envy with which they react to Dottie's increasing fame.
At first, Erica and Opal are thrilled to watch their mom getting real laughs in a real nightclub. Their escort is Dottie's agent, Claudia Curtis, an uproariously neurotic Carrie Fisher. One night Claudia's hotshot boss, Arnold Moss, played by Dan Aykroyd, shows up for a look. Aykroyd does wonders with his cameo role – wearing sweaters and chewing napkins, he slyly tweaks superagent Sam Cohn. But the girls balk when Dottie starts bedding down with the man they call "the Moss." Mom, who detests their father, Norm (Louis DiBianco), and has told them often that she's through with men, is in this relationship for the perks – a decision the girls find hard to take.
Dottie herself might be harder to take if the Ephrons hadn't made her such a sympathetically flawed character and Kavner hadn't played her with such wincing humor and poignancy. An undervalued resource in such movies as Woody Allen's Radio Days and Penny Marshall's Awakenings, Kavner earns her star spot with a resoundingly hilarious and true performance. Dottie isn't a monster; she's sincere when she says a parental bond will always outlast a sexual one. Still, self-sacrifice doesn't wear well on her. Kavner shrewdly lets us see the flush of fulfillment that work and success bring to Dottie.
Erica and Opal see it too, and it scares them. Hoffmann subtly shows the void the absent Dottie leaves in Opal's young life. And Mathis, Christian Slater's sexy alternative to masturbation in Pump Up the Volume and a newcomer with a stunning future, is extraordinary at revealing the pain beneath Erica's tantrums. In one piercing scene, the girls locate their father only to find a burnt-out case who is hopelessly inadequate to the task of comforting children who've become strangers.
Still, the pang of being separated from Dottie when she's off to L.A. or Vegas is nothing compared with the injury the kids feel when Mom uses their traumas as fodder for her act, which she opens by saying, "Okay, this is my life." Erica and Opal's fears about friends, school and sex are fair game. This issue – a mother coping with the ethics of exploiting her children for art – is new to movies but not to Ephron. Her writer parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, often went to the family well for inspiration. Their play Take Her, She's Mine made sport of Nora's four years at college. The experience clearly affected her. In her novel Heartburn, she told of her acrimonious divorce from Carl Bernstein and its impact on their two sons. Bernstein took legal action to prevent Ephron from using their marriage in her future work (note that those are daughters, not sons, in This Is My Life).
Though some might call the ending of Ephron's acutely perceptive and vastly entertaining comedy a happy one, Erica and Opal have learned too many life lessons from Mom to settle for easy sentiment. What I see is three women you don't fuck with trying to work out a truce. Ephron doesn't shy away from the bleak terrain ahead. Her gift, a rare one, is for being brutally honest and funny simultaneously. Her independent spirit validates the inclusion of This Is My Life at Sundance. It's one from the bruised heart.
Ephron isn't the only woman making waves at Sundance. Three of the films in the dramatic competition are written and directed by women. Allison Anders's resonant Gas, Food, and Lodging also deals with a divorced mother (Brooke Adams) raising two daughters (Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk) alone. Britta Sjogren's mystical Jo-Jo at the Gate of Lions offers a modern-day Joan of Arc (Lorie Marino) who retreats from reality. And Katt Shea Ruben's scarily alluring Poison Ivy pits two precocious high schoolers, Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert, against their dysfunctional families and each other.
This year two of the four judges for the dramatic prize were women – filmmaker Beth B and writer Callie Khouri, a former waitress from Texas who scored with Thelma & Louise. The fact that the top prize went to Alexandre Rockwell's In the Soup, a smart satire about filmmakers and hoods, takes nothing away from the accomplishments of Sundance's women warriors. Producer Lynda Obst premièred This Is My Life at the festival to show blockbuster-minded studios that there's still artistic and box-office life in the small personal film. She couldn't have brought a more eloquent reminder.