Written by Paul Rudnick, with scarcely a trace of the naughty high-bitch wit he brought to ”Jeffrey” and the ”Addams Family” films (though with an overdose of the motivational incoherence that marked his script for ”In & Out”), ”Isn’t She Great” is as bumbling and mindless, as naively misconceived, as that clapping-through-tears moniker.
Bette Midler, as Jacqueline Susann, one of the best-selling authors of the ’60s and ’70s, flounces from one room to the next clad in outfits that look like they’ve been grabbed off the lower-bourgeois rack of the swinging ’60s – frilly pink dresses, a skintight leopard-spotted pantsuit, and so forth. The clothes, unfortunately, are all there is to the character.
Susann, who starts out as an actress, announces, with Napoleonic will, her desire to be famous, and she meets up with a fawning manager-publicist, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), who devotes his life to making that dream come true. But what does she have that no one else does? From what we can see, Susann is a minor Broadway and TV-commercial performer of no discernible talent, beauty, or connections.
When she decides to write an epic salacious novel based on her mountain of ”inside knowledge” about the dirty secrets of the entertainment industry, it’s a bizarre and baffling turn of events, because we’ve never seen her experience – or even talk about – a single party or closed-door showbiz encounter.
Jacqueline Susann was nothing if not a maestro of sleaze, but there isn’t a whisper of good dish in ”Isn’t She Great.” The movie leaves out the true juice of Susann’s vulgarity; it reduces Midler the great bawd to a toothless Catskills comic. There are references to Susann’s autistic son and her ongoing bout with breast cancer, but as tragic as these true-life circumstances are, you get the feeling that Rudnick and the director, Andrew Bergman (Striptease), thought that all they had to do was glance at them once in a while to create instant drama.
”Isn’t She Great” is an oxymoron: camp that’s been drained of mockery. The movie would like to salute Jacqueline Susann’s novels as cathartic trash, but the film itself is so junky it never earns the right.