Isn't She Great
2000, R, 95 min. Directed by Andrew Bergman. Starring Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, John Cleese.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 28, 2000
Great fortunes are often built on the simplest of realizations. For mega-bestselling 1960s novelist Jacqueline Susann, the key insight was that, as fabulous as orgasms are, orgasms in a swimming pool, on Seconal, at the mansion of the ruthless and sexually insatiable film producer you're balling for a plum acting role are even more sinfully delicious. In other words, no one ever went broke in this country by overestimating consumers' appetite for trashy, salacious excess. This philosophy carried failed actress Susann to a hugely successful midlife career as the author of such tits `n' glitz classics as Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, and Once Is Not Enough. Andrew Bergman's Isn't She Great, an affectionate and candidly embellished biopic, focuses mainly on the outrageous author's rise to worldwide notoriety -- a run that ended with her death from cancer in 1974. Like the recent made-for-TV movie, Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story, this film attributes Susann's success to her ability to, as they say, write what she knew. By dishing dirt on the venal, drug-hoovering starlets, gigolos, and industry moguls she'd met during her Hollywood non-career, she performed a valuable service by slipping Middle-American readers a taste of the Swingin' Sixties' forbidden nectars. Unlike Scandalous Me, however, Isn't She Great shows no interest in dramatizing the degree to which Jackie -- no stranger to pills, booze, or infidelity -- resembled one of her own characters. Instead, it concentrates on the improbable romance between the writer and her doting press-agent husband, Irving Mansfield, in whose eyes she was always an even bigger celebrity than the “other” Jackie of the day. As reimagined by ace comedy writer Paul Rudnick (In & Out, Jeffrey), Susann (Midler) is a crass, brassy, and unabashedly commercial striver driven more by a simple (though admittedly over-the-top) craving for love than by out-and-out megalomania. Despite flashes of brilliance, this script isn't exactly Rudnick's finest hour. A few early scenes strain embarrassingly for effect, and several whimsical set-pieces, especially a recurring bit in which Susann lectures and wheedles God in the middle of Central Park, are well across the line between sweet and saccharine. Overall, though, it's hard not to be roped in by this film's buoyant, life-affirming tone and frequent moments of belly-laugh-inspiring humor. Midler is perhaps a tad old for the role but has great fun nailing her inherently cartoonish character. Lane is unexpectedly affecting in his subordinate role as Mansfield, and Channing takes full advantage of several scene-stealing opportunities as Susann's libidinous pal, Florence. Bergman (Soapdish, The Freshman) is solidly in tune with the project's sunny, fairytale tone and enhances it with a zany, Peter Max-derived color palette and bright splashes of borderline-slapstick direction. Add a soundtrack boasting not one but two brand-new Burt Bacharach tunes and you've got yourself an ideal diversion for one of those evenings when low expectations feel more like a state of grace than a surrender to vice.