A scene from 'Isn't She Great'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 105 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, January 28, 2000
Directed by Andrew Bergman

Starring Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, Amanda Peet, John Cleese & John Larroquette


Pure sitcom. Won't lose much to small screen. But then, there's not much to lose.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 07/18/2000


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'Isn't She Great' buries 'Valley of the Dolls' author under 10,000 pounds of saccharine sentimentality

By Rob Blackwelder

If Jacqueline Susann, the joyously trashy novelist of "Valley of the Dolls," were to come back to life and watch "Isn't She Great" -- the new comedy-biography in which the author is played by Bette Midler -- she'd go into sugar shock.

With its 10,000 pounds of saccharine sentimentality, this picture couldn't have less in common with the real Susann if Tom Cruise had been cast to play her in drag.

The screenplay is by Paul Rudnick ("In and Out") -- whose skeleton is made almost entirely of funny bones -- and Susann's life of self-incurred melodrama is played for campy laughs. But the story's structure is unspontaneous and utterly common -- as if cribbed from chapter one of a screenwriting textbook. Instead of taking a cue from the authors expose-it-and-exploit-it style, the movie early on glosses over every unpleasantry in her life, only to turn around later and beat the same points to death with forced poignancy.

Narrated ad nauseam (there's so much voice-over it's like watching a book on tape) by Nathan Lane, who plays Susann's husband and agent, this soft-peddled, Park Avenue parable of persistence tracks the novelist's career from failed Broadway actress and radio bit player to best-selling author of the most gratuitously tawdry books of her day (she turned dime novels into a hard-back business).

Rudnick has an inborn ability to create acerbic but sweet dialogue, understanding how to respectfully employ his characters' idiosyncrasies for aisle-rolling laughs. But aside from managing to make a punch line out of every swear word in his script, director Andrew Bergman ("Striptease," "Honeymoon in Vegas") paints Susann's life like a sassy Saturday Evening Post cover.

Thanks largely to its cast of comedians who are clearly enjoying themselves, the movie does have a lot of character. Midler is well cast as the fame-ravenous writer -- despite her wildly different physical proportions -- and infuses plenty of humor into this woman who is too much of a handful for anyone but her forever-smitten spouse.

Lane's perpetual, half-drunk grin is just right for his part as the always-optimistic Irv Mansfield, whose blind faith in Jackie's greatness -- not her talent per se, but just her ability to be great -- gives her hope when her life is most dark. David Hyde Pierce is amusingly pinched as her long-suffering, literature-minded editor, who thinks her books are just appalling. And the magnificent Stockard Channing steals scenes left and right as Jackie's brassy best friend, a shallow, aging actress who gets many of the movie's funniest lines ("They fired me from goddamn 'Ozzie and Harriet!'").

But the only scaffold holding this story of canned scenes and foredrawn conclusions together is the never-ending narration. Lane yaps the story swiftly past anything of substance, like the birth and institutionalization of their autistic son -- whom we don't even meet until the third act calls for excessive sympathy (break out the terminal cancer and habitual pill-popping!). Of course, the grating, elevator music score hints all along that we're eventually going to have to feel sorry for Susann. But given the character of its subject, there's just no excuse for the movie to be this sappy.

"Isn't She Great" has its good moments -- like the sniping editing sessions between Midler and Pierce -- and the movie's deliberately gauche, candy-colored, '60s look is exactly what the material needs. Being so text-heavy, the script was probably a hoot to read on paper, in spite of its obvious and pandering nature. It just didn't translate well to the screen.

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