[Screen It]

(2000) (Bette Midler, Nathan Lane) (R)

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Comedy/Drama: A brassy and vivacious woman, with the help of her publicist husband, attempts to reinvent herself as a trashy novelist in this look at the life and times of author Jacqueline Susann.
Jacqueline Susann (BETTE MIDLER) is a middle-aged woman who just wants to be famous. Despite some work in the theater and on the radio, she feels that she's passed her prime and missed the opportunity for fame. Thus, when publicist Irving Mansfield (NATHAN LANE) shows up and not only states his intention to take her on as a client, but also as his lover, Jacqueline is shocked.

Even so, she's thrilled when he lands her a national TV commercial contract as well as an appearance on a game show. Yet, those jobs don't manage to propel Jacqueline to the top and that, coupled with their having to institutionalize their toddler due to his autism, puts her into a tailspin that not even her best friend, actress Florence "Flo" Maybelle (STOCKARD CHANNING), can break.

It's not long, however, before Irving has come up with another idea, this time for Jacqueline to become a novelist. Although she's initially reluctant since she claims she knows nothing except for the sex and drug related activities of the entertainment world, she and Irving realize that would be the perfect fodder for a trashy novel.

As such, Jacqueline begins writing "The Valley of the Dolls," a risqué and amateurish novel that no publisher wishes to touch. That is, except for Henry Marcus (JOHN CLEESE), who assigns straight-laced editor, Michael Hastings (DAVID HYDE PIERCE), to work with Jacqueline in refining her work. Although their styles clash, the two finally achieve their goal and, with Irving's help, begin promoting her book. As Jacqueline progressively gets closer to attaining her dreams of global fame, she must contend with criticism of her work, a secret battle with breast cancer, and her own self-doubts.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Like any good novelist or playwright, the goal of screenwriters and film directors is usually to get the audience to empathize with their characters and whatever situations or predicaments in which they may find themselves. They do so in order to draw the viewer further into their work, and by allowing them to vicariously experience any range of emotions just as the characters do, the reader or viewer will presumably have a greater appreciation for the artistic effort.

Of course, it's not the intention of most artists for their audiences to assume any negative feelings or emotions about their work. Unfortunately, that's what happens in director Andrew Bergman's latest film, "Isn't She Great." A supposedly comical look at the life and times of the late trash novelist Jacqueline Susann - best known for her entertainment exposé, "Valley of the Dolls" - the film contains a telling scene where a straight-laced literary editor -played by "Frasier's" David Hyde Pierce -- watches in flabbergasted horror and disbelief at the characters and situation he's now surrounded by.

After watching this painfully over the top, decidedly unfunny and sporadic mess of a film, you'll know that character's pain firsthand. While I'm not that familiar with the late novelist beyond the titles and reputation of several of her works, I'm sure there was probably a better film about her lurking about somewhere, but this certainly isn't it.

What with the controversy surrounding the novelist's scandalous first work, her battle with breast cancer and having institutionalized her autistic child, there would seem to be an intriguing story to be told. Although such material seems like instant TV movie of the week fodder and isn't as inherently controversial as say, the life and times of Larry Flynt in "The People vs. Larry Flynt," Susann's story could have been interesting if handled properly.

Unfortunately, a talented cast and crew crash and burn with their approach here. Based on Michael Korda's article, "Wasn't She Great," that appeared in a 1995 issue of "The New Yorker," director Bergman ("Honeymoon in Vegas," "Striptease") and screenwriter Paul Rudnick ("In & Out," "Addams Family Values") decided to opt for the screwball comedy-type approach rather than straight drama and the results are near disastrous.

Little, if anything about the film is humorous, the timing is considerably off for most of the picture, and to make matters worse it becomes progressively more sporadic and episodic as it goes. Granted, trying to cram a real-life person's life into a less than epic-length film is often a difficult task.

Even so, it has been successfully done before, but the results here come off as forced and not particularly entertaining, with the audience consequently not caring about the characters or their predicaments in the film's more "serious" moments. Instead, the cancer and institutionalized elements feel strained, are obviously manipulative, and clearly incongruous with the rest of the film's tone, only serving to add to the film's overall failure.

Although I know little about the real Susann, it's unlikely - at least one hopes - that actress Bette Midler's portrayal of her is anything near authentic. While Midler ("For The Boys," "The Rose") has been quite good in various roles in the past, both dramatic and comedic, the fact that she overplays the character here simply doesn't work and turns her into a character for which the audience ultimately has little interest or compassion.

Nathan Lane ("Mouse Hunt," "The Birdcage") doesn't fare much better as he feels somewhat miscast and is saddled with an underdeveloped and mostly unexplained character. The fact that his character immediately approaches Jacqueline at the film's onset with his business and romantic propositions may get things off to a quick start, but we never understand nor know why he does so or what he initially or ultimately sees in her.

The rest of the talented cast members are similarly wasted in their roles. David Hyde Pierce ("A Bug's Life," "Nixon"), who's so wonderful in his Emmy winning role as Niles on TV's "Frasier," simply plays a less entertaining and/or clever version of the same type of haughty, upper class snit.

Oscar nominated actress Stockard Channing ("Six Degrees of Separation," "Grease") can't do much with her one-dimensional character who seemingly comes and goes at the script's nebulous discretion and consequently never amounts to much. Meanwhile, the usually fabulous John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) comes off as just an afterthought character that could have been played by anyone else without any apparent ill effect on the proceedings, particularly since he gets so little screen time.

Featuring a noticeably choppy editing job, a sappy and increasingly irritating score by Burt Bacharach and quite simply the wrong approach at telling the story, this film horribly misfires from the onset and never regains its footing. As a result, it continuously feels flat and rarely entertaining, except for a bit where we see a young James Brown doing his thing in a vintage clip from the Ed Sullivan TV show that's more fun than the rest of the film combined.

To make matters worse, the film's attempts at showing "the old days" (Irving meeting Jim Morrison, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme playing at a reception, along with other bits involving Aristotle Onassis & Truman Capote) are unimaginatively staged and executed.

Finally, to cap things off, the film has one of those descriptive titles that's bound to be used in a negative fashion in most critics' bylines summarizing their thoughts about it. We won't add insult to injury by offering some clever insult, but you can be sure that "Isn't She Great" doesn't come anywhere close to living up to its title. We give the film a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed January 27, 2000 / Posted January 28, 2000

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