`Isn't She Great' isn't

Movie review: From the casting to the clothing to the credits, this telling of Jacqueline Susann's life out-schlocks her novels.

January 28, 2000|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If it weren't for the fact that, following her death from breast cancer in 1974, Jacqueline Susann was cremated, she'd be spinning in her grave right now. (Maybe her ashes are whooshing around in tornado-like fury.)

That's because "Isn't She Great?" -- a biopic of the celebrated actress-turned-author of such sex, drugs and schlock classics as "Valley of the Dolls" and "The Love Machine" -- has to be among the worst movies ever made. It's one thing to pay homage to the junk fiction -- and subsequent junk films -- that the Philadelphia-born Susann spawned. But "Isn't She Great?," directed by Andrew Bergman ("Striptease," "Honeymoon In Vegas"), goes beyond camp, beyond kitsch, beyond trash into regions of stultifying unfunniness and dubious taste.

First off, there's the casting: Never mind that Susann had the complete opposite physiognomy of the brassy, zaftig Bette Midler, who portrays her here. Never mind that Irving Mansfield, her press agent/manager/husband, is played by Nathan Lane as though he were in a Broadway theater, booming to the balcony seats. But under Bergman's direction the miscast duo proceed apace with all the humanity of a "Jetsons" cartoon.

Evidently, in telling the tale of Susann's rise to fame and fortune, the filmmakers were trying to go for poignant laughs: There was the son, diagnosed with severe autism, deposited in an institution when he was still just an infant (side-splitting hilarity!), and there was Susann's long, secret battle against cancer (knee-slapping mirth!).

And then there were those tight, garish Pucci outfits, the sight of which, on Midler, bring tears to the eye.

From the cheesy opening credit sequence, with its retro Dionne Warwick-Burt Bacharach theme song and a floating-through-space cascade of ersatz paperback covers, to its scenes of Susann talking to God in a tree in Central Park, to a big boat in the Mediterranean where the novelist is seen schmoozing with Aristotle Onassis, "Isn't She Great?" boggles the mind.

The third of the late Susann's trio of guilty-pleasure best sellers, a tale of incest, orgies, rape, UFOs, drugs and deep, dark secrets, was titled "Once Is Not Enough."

In the case of "Isn't She Great?," once is too much.

`Isn't She Great?'

Starring Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese

Directed by Andrew Bergman

Rated R (profanity, adult themes)

Running time 95 minutes

Released by Universal Pictures

Sun score 1/2 star

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