Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
January 28, 2000
Truman Capote once famously said that Jacqueline Susann‘s best-selling trashy novel, “Valley of the Dolls,” was not writing, so much as it was typing. Deep down, Susann probably didn’t mind, since the mention by Capote confirmed her celebrity. And fame was Susann’s be-all, end-all, a heady rush better than any of the salacious sex that filled her three carnal-corn potboilers.
Undoubtedly, Susann would have been pleased that someone saw fit to make a movie of her life, even if it as shallow as “Isn’t She Great.” The intermittently funny film is a camp lover’s dream, full of fantastic Pucci outfits and the perverse spectacle of a paisley-clad John Cleese saying the grooviest things as Susann’s publisher.
But Susann’s private life wasn’t as much of a hoot as her public image, and when the movie alights on these tragic episodes, it feels forced and teeters dangerously close to self-parody. By the time Susann (played by Bette Midler) makes her fifth trip to Central Park to talk to a tree where God lives (was Jackie a druid?), true believers will be inclined to go home and curl up with the latest Jackie Collins novel.
Midler, despite no physical resemblance to Susann, is a logical enough choice to play the over-the-top ’60s author. In fact, screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Andrew Bergman have all but recast Susann as an extension of Midler‘s “Divine Miss M” persona, altering any facts that would stand in the way of the kitsch. In that respect, “Isn’t She Great” makes such pseudo-reality films as “The Hurricane” and “The Insider” look like veritable documentaries.
That doesn’t mean this movie isn’t without its moments. Midler and Nathan Lane, who plays Susann’s devoted publicist husband, share a nice chemistry and the movie gets a lot of mileage by throwing the flamboyant Jackie into stuffy situations where she can strut her sensational stuff.
David Hyde Pierce plays her chief nemesis, a stuffy WASP assigned to edit “Valley of the Dolls.” Stockard Channing is on hand, too, playing Jackie’s self-absorbed best friend, a woman probably closer to Susann’s spirit than the Midler incarnation.
If the movie had kept up the campiness, it might have worked. But from the start, “Isn’t She Great” is a fatal blend of soppy bathos and wacky humor. Its somber scenes involving Susann’s breast cancer and the birth of an autistic child are strangely shoehorned between various goofy episodes. The strain wears thin, particularly when Susann heads (yet again) to that God-like tree in Central Park.
And while Burt Bacharach’s score might be appropriate for the film’s time period, its cloying tone manages to evoke only memories of bad period television dramedies like “Room 222.” Susann would have been nauseated by it all. Worse still: She would have been bored.
–The film: “Isn’t She Great”(R; language).
–The stars: Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese.