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With: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese, John Larroquette, Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Ross, Christopher McDonald, Paul Benedict, Dina Waters, Pauline Little
Written by: Paul Rudnick, based on an article by Michael Korda
Directed by: Andrew Bergman
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 95
Date: 01/28/2000

Isn't She Great (2000)

1/2 Star (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

From looking at the poster of Bette Midler's new film Isn't She Great, there's no way of telling that the person who is supposed to be Great is really Jacqueline Susann, the best-selling author of the 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls. Isn't She Great may as well be about Bette Midler. Although her fans may adore this movie, Midler has asked for trouble with such a title.

I'm still not sure if this movie was really supposed to be about Susann, who as a sort of pop-culture William S. Burroughs, brought smut writing into the mainstream for the first time. The typical Hollywood treatment of her story would be an Oliver Stone-like descent into a drug-crazed, '60s-style madhouse, much like the film based on her first book, Valley of the Dolls (1967). Treating the story like a sunny Ozzie-and-Harriet show doesn't make it any more interesting. This movie is drenched in pinks and spring colors, and everyone says, "holy cats! that's swell!" While that treatment worked in the very funny Man of the Century (1999), it doesn't quite fit in with the lurid world of Jacqueline Susann.

Most of the jokes in this movie are telegraphed way in advance. In the book publishers' office three executives (David Hyde Pierce, Amanda Peet, and John Cleese) ask a Mexican maid if she would read a book about drugs and sex in Hollywood. She replies that she read it already and that it was the most shocking and horrible thing she has ever read. If her daughters were like the girl in the book, she would wring their necks herself. Hyde Pierce makes his point, "There. You see? She hated it." The maid replies on the contrary, "Are you kidding? I LOVED it!" We see this in the trailer and every other joke in the movie plays just like this.

But it's not just that this movie isn't funny. It's also in bad taste. The sunny pink look of the movie makes scenes dealing with Susann's retarded child and her breast cancer grimly uncomfortable and out of touch. It's presented like a Meg Ryan romantic comedy. And Midler and Nathan Lane, who plays Susann's publicist and significant other, just weren't meant to play cancer dramas together. Another strange gimmick that doesn't work at all has Lane and Midler talking to God through a tree in Central Park for all of the major moments in their lives together.

As for the rest of the cast: Hyde Pierce, Peet, and Cleese's characters are embarrassing. But Stockard Channing's performance as Susann's best friend nearly saves the day. I may even have enjoyed this film if it had revolved around her character.

That this movie fails on so many levels is surprising coming from the pen of the very talented Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, Jeffrey, and In & Out). He's usually so deft and clever, and yet every joke and every scene collapses and blows away before it's finished. Not so surprising is that director Andrew Bergman's last movie was the universally panned Striptease.

Midler's fans, I suspect, adore her brazenness and her outlandish behavior enough to enjoy her in this movie. I can't help but long for superior comediennes who had a little something we used to call restraint, anyone from Mae West to, yes, Rosanne. But Midler has been good before, in movies that use her character as part of the plot, like Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1985) and Ruthless People (1986), not to mention her critically acclaimed roles in The Rose (1979) or For the Boys (1991). Certainly Isn't She Great offers no indication of what made Jacqueline Susann such a success. Nor does it succeed as entertainment.

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