Isn’t She Great

As a 42 year-old male, I find myself knowing more about author Jacqueline Susann than I have a right to. Perhaps it’s because my mother used to read all of her novels, or maybe I saw an A&E Biography. I don’t know, but I do know enough that Susann would have both loved and hated the film “Isn’t She Great.”

isntshegreatSusann would have loved “Isn’t She Great” because it is as trashy and flamboyant as her novels. She would have hated the film because it turns her life into a colorful three-ring circus filled with Borscht Belt performers.

I know that Susann had a colorful life, but she also has an extremely tough life, and even though writer Paul Rudnick tries to reconcile the two into a manageable screenplay, he fails miserably. The script’s broad strokes make it virtually impossible for the actors to embrace the small, intimate moments.

Instead of being an honest look at a woman who seemingly had it all but was hurting so much on the inside, “Isn’t She Great” plays like a sitcom version on Susann’s life. It reminded me of what happened when “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” became “Alice” the television series. The basics were there, but instead of being about something, it was all about the jokes.

The biggest joke in “Isn’t She Great” is the film itself. I have to admit I enjoyed the film, but not for what it wants to be. I enjoyed it for what it is, which is nothing more than a snappy little comedy about a trashy novel author whose belated success turns her life upside down. Unfortunately, it’s not really the film it should be, which is an honest look at a woman who took the bulls by the horn and rode the whirlwind despite personal tragedy.

Bette Midler is okay as Susann, whose stalled career is rejuvenated when she meets agent Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane). Not only does he promise to make her successful, he asks her to marry him. Their union produces am autistic son, who is swept away to a private care facility. It also provides Susann with the courage to pursue writing, which she takes to like a duck to water.

Her manuscript ruffles a few feathers as well, a trashy expose of pill-popping, sex-starved alcoholic actresses and models. After some fine tuning from Susann’s anal retentive editor Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce), “Valley of the Dolls” goes on to become the best selling book of all time.

It would be a Cinderella story if Susann’s success wasn’t brought back down to earth when she learns she has breast cancer. The revelation doesn’t stop Susann, who is determined to stay on top at all costs.

Rudnick has no problem delivering the goods when it comes to comedy. His dialogue and situations are sprite and funny. His script falters when the film takes a dramatic turn. He fails to understand that less is more. Susann never seems reflective, only loud and angry. Midler plays Susann as written, and that is a big mistake. She shines during the film’s lighter moments, but literally chews the scenery during the dramatic ones.

Director Andrew Bergman, no stranger to comedy (“Honeymoon in Vegas,” “The Freshman”), can’t seem to find the film’s emotional ballast. He allows the performers to play their roles like stage actors trying to reach the balcony. Everything is so broad to the point of being annoying.

Lane actually has some fine moments, but Stockard Channing and John Cleese play Susann’s best friend and publisher as one-note characters.

The best part of the film was the period influenced musical score by Burt Bacharach, who includes two new Hal David penned songs to complete the 60’s sound. Bacharach’s music was as much a part of the landscape as Susann’s novels, plus Bacharach and David wrote the themes for “Valley of the Dolls” and “The Sex Machine.” His presence here is very nostalgic.

The look and feel of “Isn’t She Great” is also very nostalgic, perfectly capturing the colorful, wigged out look of the era. The costumes, sets and stock of the film all combine to create a mod flashback.

Too bad the film couldn’t have been as authentic. If “Isn’t She Great” were just a period romantic comedy about an author and an agent, I wouldn’t have judged it as harshly. But as a 42 year-old male who knows more about Jacqueline Susann than he has a right to, I know she deserves better.



Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese, Amanda Peet in a film directed by Andrew Bergman. Rated R. 96 Minutes.


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