"Isn't She Great" asks one question too many, the answer to which is "No she ain't."
The truth is, this ludicrously hagiographic tribute to Jacqueline Susann--failed actress turned pulp novelist and poodle owner--has very little to do with the best-selling writer. The movie may be inspired by a New Yorker article by Susann's former editor, Michael Korda, but Paul Rudnick's screenplay was tailored to fit the star, brassy Bette Midler.
Rudnick ("In & Out") and director Andrew Bergman ("The Freshman") don't seem to care that the lean, leggy Susann wasn't particularly funny and looked nothing whatsoever like the plump, jowly Midler, even if the actress is got up in a brunet wig. According to the film's production notes, the filmmakers decided to embellish the humor and loosen up the story "to make the film they wanted to make."
Everybody in the picture is fat, even the extras. The Divine Miss M seems to have morphed into Petunia Pig. (Maybe it's all the deli food they consume.)
Rather than a Guccified Manhattanite, Midler's Susann takes on the characteristics of a flamboyant Borsht Belt comedienne. More than anything else, she wants fame but she can't make it in show business, even with the unflagging support of Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane at his butchest), her adoring husband, doting manager and chief poodle-walker. His only goal in life is to make Jackie's dreams come true.
He gets her a spot on a game show and a TV commercial. Yet the offers don't pour in. Then one day, Mansfield notices a woman reading a book . . . oy vey . . . and gets a novel idea: Jackie should write a bestseller already. But Jackie demurs, "All I know about are aging stars, hopeful hookers and people popping pills and winding up in the gutter. . . . And nobody writes books about that." Plus, "I don't know how to write," she protests.
"Talent isn't everything," retorts her glamorous best friend (sparkling Stockard Channing). And after several false starts, Jackie connects with her naughty muse and "Valley of the Dolls" is born, finally published and scarfed up by a smut-starved public. But not before she locks ink horns with her first editor (David Hyde Pierce), a prisspot so WASPy he asks for mayo in a deli. Of course, he is appalled by her lurid prose but gradually warms to her vulgar wit and ethnic sensibilities.
What nobody except Susann and Mansfield knows is that she has been fighting breast cancer throughout her celebrity. And in what is meant to be the film's touching conclusion, she may have grown weak and pale, but she faces life's last page with courage and humor. In most movies, dying would be a real downer, but as dumb as it surely is, this picture does have a comment on the obsession with celebrity. Susann's friends cheer her up by pointing out that she's staying in the suite where "Elizabeth Taylor had her pneumonia."
Isn't She Great (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language.