Talent isn't everything.
Oh, yes it is.
I've said, on the occasion of reviewing arthouse stinkers, that certain films only receive positive reviews from critics so that their critic buddies won't laugh at them for not "getting it." The only way Isn't She Great could garner a positive review is if the critic was being a quote whore. It would be easier to write a review of Isn't She Great if I knew just what irked me so much about it. Maybe it was everything, with the exception of one thing, but even that turned on me at some point. Isn't She Great squarely fell into that group of movies that were an absolute, total waste of my time.
Let me get the one thing out of the way that I liked about Isn't She Great: the score, written by Burt Bacharach. Bacharach was one of the preeminent songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, penning hits for Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Doris Day, Jackie DeShannon ("What The World Needs Now Is Love"), Tom Jones ("What's New, Pussycat"), B.J. Thomas ("Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head"), and The Carpenters ("Close To You"). Film scores are nothing new to him; several of the aforementioned songs are from movies he scored, such as What's New, Pussycat and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. He also wrote the scores to Casino Royale, Arthur, among others. He's dangerously close to becoming a self-parody, with his appearance in not one, but two Austin Powers films. His music for Isn't She Great is the embodiment of the lite sounds of the 1960s, and it fits the movie. In fact, it was the only reason that I didn't give up totally on the movie. That is, until the last act when the score became so sickeningly maudlin that I wanted to run screaming from the room.
Isn't She Great is based on the life of washed-up actress turned trashy novelist Jacqueline Susann. Her claim to fame was the novel "Valley Of The Dolls," a sordid tale of sex and drugs among wannabe models and actresses. Her life was just as sordid as her novels, replete with pill-popping and passionate lesbian affairs—it's rumored she was involved with Ethel Merman. Susann was a good friend of Sharon Tate, who starred in the movie adaptation of "Valley Of The Dolls." She had been invited to the Tate Mansion the night Charles Manson and his "family" went on their killing spree. Her life had its share of ordinary tragedies: an autistic son and a long bout with breast cancer that claimed her life in 1974.
Sounds like good material for a gleefully trashy movie, right? That's what you'd think, but all of the vulgar charm has been drained out of the plot like blood from the victim of a vampire. All that's left is a series of pointless vignettes wherein second-tier stars mug for the camera. Bette Midler (Outrageous Fortune, Beaches) was the best choice to portray Jackie Susann, or at least this version of Jackie Susann. The role is merely repackaging of the same shtick from her other film roles and her soon-to-be-aired, even-sooner-to-be-canceled upcoming sitcom Bette! Nathan Lane (The Birdcage) plays her adoring husband, Irving Mansfield. In fact, that's all he does in the film: adore Jackie. It's a waste of his unique talents. Also wasted are Stockard Channing (Grease, The First Wives Club) as Jackie's best friend, David Hyde Pierce (Frasier) as Jackie's editor, and John Cleese (of the Monty Python comedy troupe) as Jackie' publisher.
Isn't She Great was written by Paul Rudnick. He also wrote Addams Family Values and In And Out, both of which, while perhaps not the most poignant films ever made, are sharply written and very entertaining. He writes a monthly column for Premiere Magazine under the penname Libby Gelman-Waxner. I've read Premiere for several years, and his (her) mocking take on Hollywood has always been the highlight of each issue. Isn't She Great was directed by Andrew Bergman. He has directed several entertaining lightweight comedies—The Freshman, Honeymoon In Vegas—and one horrible blight on his oeuvre: Striptease. To his credit, he has also written several very funny screenplays, including Blazing Saddles and Fletch.
With the paint-by-numbers way in which most Hollywood movies are assembled, it's difficult to know where to lay the blame for the mess that is Isn't She Great. I can't see Rudnick being at fault; he's usually a smart writer, and I can't see him dumbing down such an iconic person's life. My assumption is that the blame should fall upon Andrew Bergman and Bette Midler, and partially on Universal. Bergman and Midler initially had been bidding against each other for the rights to the New Yorker article upon which the screenplay was based. I imagine that Midler would have eschewed including material from Susann's life that would have sullied her image, thus the more distasteful elements of her life were left out. All that's left is an incomplete portrait of a flamboyant, quirky lady who's determined to be famous, talent be damned. It even downplays that she had little talent, what with Nathan Lane's incessant fawning over her. I'm sure that Universal wanted to protect some of their investment in the film; lighthearted comedies are more marketable than trashy, weepy biopics. A "testament" to their success is the film's $3 million domestic box office gross against a budget of $36 million. Also a "testament" to its humor, I laughed once—ONCE—during the entire movie, but only I'm a sucker for nuns-doing-out-of-character-things comedy.
Universal's DVD release of Isn't She Great is just as lackluster as the movie itself. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame transfers, on a single dual-layered side. The full-frame version appears to be an open matte transfer, rather than pan-n-scanned. (Most films that are presented with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio theatrically are shot at 1.33:1, then matted to the narrower aspect ratio. With an open matte transfer, the full camera negative is transferred without the theatrical masking. So, you're actually getting more out of the image, rather than losing parts of the picture as with pan-n-scan.) Few defects can be seen in the source material, but both transfers appear limp and lifeless and very two-dimensional, the product of over-compression.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack adds sparkle to Burt Bacharach's score, but dialogue at times has an over-processed, ADR-recorded feel, and the surrounds and LFE channel are used sparingly. Extras include the theatrical trailer for Isn't She Great (which overplays its salaciousness, for some reason), a trailer for Bette Midler's That Old Feeling (directed by Carl Reiner, proving once and for all that he has Lost It), production notes, and cast and crew biographies. The production notes do a pretty good job of A) summarizing the movie so you don't have to suffer through it, and B) prove that Paul Rudnick fudged the story quite a bit. There are no surprises in the biographies, other than the fact that Andrew Bergman holds a Ph.D. in American History. Who would've known that the director of Striptease is a doctor?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Haven't I trashed the movie enough? Well, in the immortal words of Kurt Cobain, "hey, wait, I have a new complaint."
Jacqueline Susann was a bisexual (or at least rumored to be). Paul Rudnick is openly gay, as is Nathan Lane. Bette Midler's big break came as a cabaret singer in a New York gay club. David Hyde Pierce is active in AIDS fundraising. So, why the choice to hide Susann's sexuality? She may have not been open about it (but how many famous people were "out" in the 1960s?), but her novels were some of the first mainstream fiction to tackle the subject. It's just one more example of the watering-down of the story.
Rudnick states in the production notes that he tried to make a comedy out of her life. Ha ha. The only way this could've been a good movie was if they made an all-out, scandalous, sleazy movie. I'm not prone to saying that films should be raunchier, but Isn't She Great deserved to be campy, and flamboyant, and packed to the gills with all manner of titillating content. Come on, this is the life of the author of "Valley Of The Dolls"! We get no sex, no nudity, no sleaze, and no drugs. The only thing that makes the movie R-rated is nine uses of "the F-word" (thanks to capalert.com for their typically anal accounting of the movie's vices). I'll bet Jackie Susann is spinning in her grave.
Don't waste your money on Isn't She Great. Don't even bother renting it. I was going to suggest you pick up Valley Of The Dolls instead, or even Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (co-written with Roger Ebert), but neither of them are available on DVD. (In fact, it doesn't appear that any of Russ Meyer's films are on DVD. What a shame.)
Andrew Bergman and Paul Rudnick are severely punished for being the primary creative forces behind this vapid piece of nothingness. The talented cast is rebuked for allowing themselves to appear in thankless roles. The entire production is reprimanded for not generating a film with the guts to tackle the life of its subject head-on.
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