Paul Rudnick and Jacqueline Susann should go together like bitter-tasting peas in a pod. The latter was among the earliest best-selling authors to prove that brazen self-promotion and a lurid choice of subjects are far more important to success than the ability to craft a coherent sentence. Rudnick ("Addams Family Values," "Jeffrey") has spent most of his screenwriting career skewering -- yet somehow celebrating -- the tacky excesses that sprout like weeds in the garden of American popular culture.
Inexplicably, the normally canny Rudnick has taken a 1995 New Yorker profile of Susann and blown it up into "Isn't She Great," a feature-length paean to self-determination that's reverent when it should be scathing and trivial when it should be sober (which, admittedly, isn't that often).
The first sign of the extended misfire is the utilization of Nathan Lane as Irving Mansfield, the real-life publicist who was also Mr. Jacqueline Susann. Bette Midler and Nathan Lane as husband and wife -- it's a wonderfully ridiculous concept, right? Then why doesn't anyone on the screen seem to realize that it's ridiculous?
Over the course of the happy couple's patently unbelievable relationship, we watch the tart-tongued Susann rise from the ashes of a failed acting career, a bout with breast cancer and the birth of an autistic son to assume a place at the very top of the literary pantheon. She does so by rejecting the conventional wisdom that a book has to be clean and high-minded, instead courting unprecedented numbers of readers with trashy tales of sexual obsession, chemical dependency and Hollywood backstabbing. All the while, the indulgent Mansfield acts as his spouse/client's biggest supporter. He never grasps the irony that her transformation into a winner has been brought about by coarse pandering -- and unfortunately, neither does Rudnick.
The writer, of all people, should know better: His Debbie Jellinsky, the murderous nanny of "Addams Family Values," was a cutthroat opportunist whose exaggerated harpiness didn't prevent her from earning our backhanded respect as an ego-driven force to be reckoned with. Trotting that character out a second time would be infinitely preferable to the colorless Susann he gives us here, whose oddly harmless show-biz persona is only made worse by Midler's utter lack of bite.
Nowhere is the timidity more evident than in the film's gauzy treatment of Susann's son, Guy (played at various ages by Mickey Toft and Ricky Mabe). Finding humor in the mentally challenged is a tall order, even for Rudnick, but there's no excuse for the made-for-TV maudlinism that creeps in every time the wordless Guy is seen or mentioned.
Only rarely does Rudnick display his usual talent for shattering taboos with gags whose bracing truthfulness makes audiences gasp first and guffaw second. In one such passage, Susann solicits a pair of upper-crust New England matrons for their reaction to the lesbian overtones of her first novel, "Valley of the Dolls." The women immediately and glowingly recall the same-sex crushes of their own youth, reaffirming the author's belief that her instinct for smut will help her work to cross any demographic boundary.
The movie's supporting characters are barely worth notice. John Cleese is utterly wasted as Susann's publisher, Henry Marcus, an aging businessman who dons a series of increasingly garishÃ?fashions in an effort to stay in step with the swinging '60s. David Hyde Pierce's portrayal of Michael Hastings, Susann's prissy, long-suffering editor, appears to exist solely to answer the question, "How much fun would Niles Crane be if he indignantly barked out his every line of dialogue?" The answer: Not much fun, thank you.
With this cast of day players sleepwalking through every frame, it's no surprise that Stockard Channing's screen time is pared down to near-nothingness. As Florence Maybelle, Susann's decadent best friend, the comedienne is every bit the tsunami of attitude our heroine is supposed to be. Channing is unceremoniously shunted out of scene after scene before she can make us forget that Midler is in the film at all.
The one time Rudnick would be justified in dropping his customarily sarcastic worldview, he drops the ball instead. Just after she's diagnosed with cancer, Susann marches into Manhattan's Central Park and looks to the sky, confronting God with a laundry list of grievances. At that point, her career is a non-starter and she's already struggling to raise a child whose special needs are legion. The entire world seems stacked against her.
"You owe me!" she rails in fury and indignance. It's a moment to whose emotional accuracy everyone in the audience can more or less attest --and Rudnick chooses to play it for tepid laughs. Why he does -- and why the entire movie is so spectacularly wrong -- God only knows.