Georgia (Marsha Mason) is a divorced Broadway star who has just spent three months drying out at a clinic for alcoholics. Toby (Joan Hackett), her vain best friend, and Jimmy (James Coco), a gay actor who always stands by her, are on hand to welcome the transformed actress home to New York City.

Two new challenges face Georgia. Her teenage daughter Polly (Kristy McNichol), who has been living with her father and his new wife, wants to stay with her for a year before starting college. And David (David Dukes) hopes that Georgia will star in a play he's written about their turbulent relationship. With a brave heart, the actress accepts both challenges but finds herself upended when Toby, facing divorce on her 40th birthday, and Jimmy, depressed when he loses the first big acting job he's had in a long time, turn to her for support. In the midst of communal sharing of woes over drinks, the actress slides back into drunkenness — distressing her friends and angering Polly.

Only When I Laugh is a film about family ties, friendship, and coping in a competitive world where it is difficult not to be brought down by failing at success. Marsha Mason puts in her best performance in many years; Coco is touching and funny; Hackett is feisty and fine; and Kristy McNichol again demonstrates her emotionally rich acting abilities. Neil Simon, who adapted the screenplay from a drama titled The Gingerbread Lady, seems to be stretching his talents at last.