A lot of movies these days have a garishly overbright, spic-and-span look in a word, they look like television. Yet it's not just visually that these films seem clean, tidy, easy to scan. Dramatically, too, they're airbrushed to the point of sterility. Welcome to the 500-watt domestic sitcom, where you never have to worry about pesky shades of gray.
This Is My Life, the first movie directed by author-screenwriter Nora Ephron (Heartburn), is a harmless little one-hankie comedy about a wisecracking single mom, Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), who pursues her dream of becoming a stand-up comic and ends up neglecting her two growing daughters. Dottie has been working at the cosmetics counter of a department store, where she uses her customers as ready-made stooges for her one-liners. Kavner captures the brittle layers of ego that go into the making of a stand-up comic. At the same time, she exudes world-weary maternal warmth. The film could almost be a made-for-TV version of The Roseanne Arnold Story: It's like a middle episode entitled ''The Nightclub Years.''
When Dottie receives a modest inheritance, she moves the family to Manhattan and begins working the comedy clubs, where her neo-borscht belt rhythms catch on. She lands a hot agent (Dan Aykroyd), and before long she's off to Vegas and the talk shows and is signing autographs in airports. The only ones less than enchanted with her success are her kids, 16-year-old Erica (Samantha Mathis) and 10-year-old Opal (Gaby Hoffmann). They're used to Mom making flapjacks in the morning and clowning around at night. Now, it's as though the family itself had dissolved.
Ephron, adapting a novel by Meg Wolitzer, bends over backward to be generous to all her characters. And that's the trouble with the movie: She bends too far. This Is My Life wants to show us that people act selfishly even when they mean well. Ephron, though, is so scrupulous about underlining the nicey-nice motives of everyone we see that she never risks putting a truly disruptive emotion on screen. Kavner works hard to give a lived-in performance. And though Mathis seems to be playing a teenager from a more innocent era, her avid self-righteousness rings true. Yet even as the characters grow huffy and ''confront'' each other, the movie never loses its compulsive desire to soothe. C+