Isn’t She Great

I don’t think I could actively dislike any film that prominently features the line “Up yours, Tolstoy!” Andrew Bergman’s much lambasted fictionalized biopic about sleazy writer Jacqueline Susann is quickly emerging as the most underrated movie of the typically dreadful post-holiday season. If I see one more critic “cleverly” answer the title’s question with the word “No,” I’m going to scream. This is a light-hearted, enjoyable, inconsequential comedy clearly undeserving of such a bitter reception. Much like Susann’s books, Isn’t She Great isn’t Shakespeare but it gets the job done.

Paul Rudnick’s script has Susann (Bette Midler) as simply a woman with a dream: to be famous, to be loved by the masses, to make it big. As the film opens, she is a struggling actress. She has had roles on cheesy radio dramas, had a 2 second part as a quickly murdered maid in a stage mystery and is now hopelessly out of work. Nathan Lane plays Irving, a small-time Hollywood agent who approaches Susann when she is at her most vulnerable. He says that even if nobody else appreciates her, he does and he will do his damnedest to make her a star.

Well, they get married. Despite Irving’s best efforts, Jacqueline is unable to become a breakout star. They have a child… he’s autistic and has to be sent away. Then, Jacqueline gets breast cancer. But Irving has an idea. Why doesn’t his darling wife write a book? He suggests it to her and she thinks it’s silly: what would she write about? She later decides to write about what she knows: the drugs, sex and corruption of big-name Hollywood honchos. Her creation is called “The Valley of the Dolls,” and if it’s not the raunchiest book ever written, it’s certainly up there.

Susann and Irving go around to publishing houses, but nobody wants the book. Overwhelmed by their son and Susann’s cancer, they are ready to give up until they run into Henry Marcus (John Cleese), a sleazy publisher who sees potential in the novel. He dispatches an uptight editor (David Hyde Pierce) to whip the book into shape, but neither Jackie nor her husband is particularly open to suggestions.

Bette Midler was born to play this role. It lets her dress in hilarious outfits, go into screaming fits and babble about various uncouth sexual acts. She has the look, the voice and the feel to play Jacqueline Susann. She has a lot of fun with the role and we have a lot of fun watching her. You could see where Susann might come off as an annoying personality in real life, but the way Midler plays her on screen, she’s almost endearing. Ditto for Irving who, like the rest of the movie, is one-dimensional but also cute.

And as always, thank God for John Cleese, who can lift the most banal jokes to the level of acceptable comedy. David Hyde Pierce, of Frasier fame, has a relatively large part and is funny, though he is playing precisely the same blowhard character here as he does on his show. His part is mostly reactive, as he responds to the eccentricities of the people around him in occasionally hilarious ways instead of spouting jokes himself.

Yes, Isn’t She Great is as painfully shallow as its detractors claim. Its attempts at drama are amusingly ridiculous: Midler’s conversations with a tree aim for pathos but achieve only mild chuckles. But it still manages to be an entertaining comedy — a guilty pleasure, perhaps, but I’ll take it. Up yours, Tolstoy!

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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