NEW YORK — I RECENTLY came across one of Nora Ephron's humor collections in the "belles- lettres" section of a Manhattan bookstore. I hadn't associated Ms. Ephron's name with anything as highfalutin as belles-lettres, but every now and then a humorist does break through the sophistication barrier, taking on an extra measure of respectability.
Ephron is a reasonable candidate for this, since her career has included two Academy Award screenwriting nominations: one for the serious "Silkwood," which she wrote with Alice Arlen, and one for the comedy "When Harry Met Sally...." These have eased the memory of duds like "Cookie" and "My Blue Heaven," which are also among her credits.
In any case, Ephron's fortunes have taken a generally upward path. And since nothing does more to enhance a screenwriter's prestige than graduation to the rank of director, it's not surprising that she has taken this step.
"This Is My Life" is a light and breezy comedy-drama, with winning performances and a sprightly mood. Its strong reliance on visual cuteness and snappy timing indicates that Ephron has learned a few tricks from Mike Nichols, who directed "Silkwood" and "Heartburn," two of her more respected scripts. But the movie's engaging tone and excellent casting show that Ephron has a directorial personality of her own and suggest that her ambitions behind the camera have a solid future.
The main character is Dottie, a New Yorker with a boring job, two energetic daughters to raise, and a conviction that her destiny lies not behind the cosmetics counter at Macy's but in the spotlight at the world's greatest comedy clubs. Countless others have similar dreams, of course, but Dottie has the talent to make her fantasies come true. After years of struggle she gets the right agent, makes the right connections, and lands the right bookings. Her career takes off - bringing not only fame and glamo ur, but also a new crop of troubles at home, where her daughters feel neglected and sometimes downright abandoned.
Lending extra substance to this bittersweet story is the fact that we see it largely through the eyes of the oldest daughter, a bright 16-year-old who needs all the guidance she can get as she navigates the tricky waters of adolescence. Also at the center of the plot is her 10-year-old sister, faced with a whole different set of needs and challenges.
There's nothing new about this story or the emotions behind it. What brings them alive is mostly the film's good acting. Julie Kavner, taking a break from her voice-only duties as one of "The Simpsons" on television, is splendid in her first big-screen leading role, making Dottie at once poignant, aggravating, and somebody you'd like to know. A skilled supporting actress whose career has included TV work on "Rhoda" and savvy appearances in Woody Allen films, she handles the demands of leading-role statu s with ease.
Samantha Mathis and Gaby Hoffmann do adroit backup work as Dottie's daughters, while Carrie Fisher and Dan Aykroyd turn in quietly sharp performances as her best friend and agent-turned-lover, respectively. Danny Zorn also earns a nod as Erica's first boyfriend, in a coming-of-sexual-age scene that pushes the movie into PG-13 territory.
"This Is My Life" is a modest film, content to unfold a pleasantly predictable yarn in a pleasantly predictable manner. It only turns surprising in one inventive scene, when the girls pack their bags and head for upstate New York to live with the father they haven't seen or heard from in years - and who turns out to be fascinating in his very dullness.
I wish the movie had more original moments like this one. But it's appealing as it stands and a lot fresher than the cloying "Fried Green Tomatoes" and other family-oriented pictures of the season. Delia Ephron collaborated on the screenplay with her sister Nora, and Bobby Byrne did the snappy cinematography.