Isn't She Great (2000)
Directed by Andrew Bergman
Cast: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, Amanda Peet, John Cleese.
2000 93 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual innuendo).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 30, 2000.
Andrew Bergman, director of two of the brightest comedies of the '90s, 1992's "Honeymoon in Vegas" and 1994's "It Could Happen to You," has fallen on desperate times lately, first with the 1996 Demi Moore debacle, "Striptease," and now with "Isn't She Great," a rather cartoonish biopic of struggling-actress-turned-trashy-writer Jacqueline Susann. Susann, who looked nothing at all like Bette Midler, died at the age of 53 in the mid-1970s of breast cancer, but before her death became an icon for the general public, not because her writing was particularly good, but because it told the absolute truth. All she wanted was to be happy and successful, something she never found in her acting career, and according to the movie, it was her devoted husband, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), who originally suggested she write a book. Susann is a bit hesitant at first, but after writing a brazen little number that tells it solely like it is, "Valley of the Dolls," and managing to sell it to a publishing company, it quickly tops the charts and stays there for 28 weeks, becoming the best-selling novel of all time.
What the public didn't know about, however, was that Jacquelyn's son was sent to an institution after being labeled Autistic, and that she struggled with cancer for many years. No one would buy a trash-talking book by a cancer patient, Susann though, so she hid it from everyone except her husband and the doctors, going in on a regular basis for chemotherapy. She ultimately lost her battle with the illness, but as she set out to do, was a star by the time she passed away.
Uplifting? Maybe a little. An appropriate story to build a wacky, fluffy comedy around? No way. Although any genre can surely be placed around any storyline and still be successful, it takes a firm, sure touch to sometimes pull it off. That is just one of the things that screenwriter Paul Rudnick (1997's "In & Out") is consistently missing in his disrespectful treatment of Susann, as he paints her as a crazy woman who talked to trees and thought it was God peering through the branches when the sun was shining. The only way to keep such a breezy tone and work, I think, would probably to have transformed the piece into a musical, a 'la "Evita." There are two scenes that are perfect setups for music numbers (and one of them actually does have Midler singing), and it is a missed opportunity that Rudnick did not realize this. Apparently, his brain was on autopilot while he penned the sloppy screenplay, anyway.
Worse yet is filmmaker Bergman. Plainly put, "Isn't She Great" is an astoundingly inept piece of direction, a surprise coming from someone who has proven his talent in year's past. From the schmaltzy narration by Susann's husband, Irving, to the episodic, bare-bones editing that seems to dwell on minor happenings in her life and then bypasses the most important elements, the film is never involving or emotionally satisfying because Bergman often seems to be too busy saying, "Look at Jackie Susann! Isn't she great?! Isn't she wacky?! Isn't she wild?!" Susann is only sporadically pulled out of her caricaturized character, and it is when she is (usually while she is telling things, no-holds-barred, exactly how they are) that the movie gets the little bit of charm that it acquires.
We rarely are able to believe anything in the film because of the unbelievable way in which it is presented. When Irving Mansfield, a publicity agent, spots Jacquelyn Susann on the stage, and then meets her in a restaurant, they end up spending the day together, with him confessing his undying love for her by the time night falls. It should be noted that they are standing waist-deep in a lake when this "touching" scene is played out, because Susann had just halfheartedly attempted suicide. Soon, they are married, but their relationship seems to be nothing more than close confidantes, as we never see them in bed together, or even kiss. And how are viewers to take it when Susann is earnestly talking to a tree in Central Park in one scene, and receiving radiation in the next? It simply does not work, and any cast or crew member should have discovered this when they read the script, unless they were all in it for the money and did not care about faithfully preserving the life of Susann.
Bette Midler overacts her way through the picture, but remains spunky and full of energy, thus making the proceedings a little more entertaining than they might have been had someone else been cast in the role. She can do far better, however, so let's hope that her next film, "Drowning Mona," being released next month, is a step up for her. Nathan Lane is a good sport as Irving, but usually is playing the straight man to Susann's bigger-than-life personality. Stockard Channing, as Susann's best friend, Flo, is a standout, spitting out her flashy lines with delightful panache. David Hyde Pierce, as Susann's editor; John Cleese, as her publisher; and Amanda Peet, as her promotional assistant, are mostly wasted, although Pierce gains a little extra mileage in the scenes where he sits down to edit the novel, only to get every one of his requested changes rebuked by Susann.
It is truly unfortunate that Rudnick sat down to construct a biopic of Jacquelyn Susann and could find nothing worthwhile to write aside from a string of one-liners, some of which are sharp zingers, to be sure, but do not aid in saying anything insightful about its subject. With only a brief glance at "Isn't She Great," which always feels like the outline to a movie, rather than a fully written motion picture, one thing is obvious: making the story of Jacquelyn Susann into a wistful comedy, albeit a badly made one, was an arbitrary, offensive decision, as many of the developments in her life were anything but a barrel of laughs.
©2000 by Dustin Putman