Screenwriter, playwright, script doctor, and humorist Paul Rudnick is Hollywood's reigning king of the one-liner, a gag-man par excellence. But as a screenwriter, at least, one-liners are Rudnick's greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength. For when Rudnick is off his game–which has been the case in every film he's written since In & Out–his movies are little more than an endless cavalcade of glib zingers lazily strung together with little consideration for plot, character, realism, structure, or, in the case of the woeful remake of Stepford Wives, coherence, logic, or consistency.
In the equally hopeless 2000 bio-pic Isn't She Great, Rudnick uses the remarkable life and career of best-selling author Jacqueline Susann as little more than a big piece of pink stationery on which to scribble sketches and zippily misanthropic one-liners. The overall effect is like a three-course meal of nothing but chocolate sprinkles: it's less savory than stomach-churning, all fluff and zero nourishment.
Rudnick's screenplay depicts Susann as the ultimate Warholian celebrity, a raging monster of Id and ego whose only real talent was for self-promotion and pandering to the basest impulses of the reading public. Rudnick seems to view Susann as a lovable monster, but while her behavior is plenty monstrous, she remains lovable in theory only. Rudnick and director Andrew Bergman accomplish the formidable feat of whitewashing huge chunks of Susann's life, especially her bisexuality and drug use, without rendering her remotely sympathetic.
Bette Midler and Nathan Lane play Susann and her press-agent husband Irving Mansfield as curiously asexual soul mates–for a bio-pic about a broad who brought sexual perversity to the best-seller list, this is suspiciously sexless– whose only passion in life involves making Susann as big a star as possible, by any means necessary. After striking out as an actress, model, singer, playwright, and television personality, Susann stumbles into worldwide infamy as a writer of lurid roman à clefs that ruthlessly expose Hollywood's sleaziest dirty laundry.
David Hyde Pierce plays Susann's aghast blueblood editor and for a 20-minute stretch, Isn't She Great turns into a shrill comedy of bad manners with Pierce acting as the horrified straight man to Midler's prodigiously profane diva of bad taste. It must have taken every bit of willpower in Rudnick and Bergman's systems to resist making Pierce wear a monocle that falls to the floor and shatters theatrically every time Midler says something offensive.
Yet even as Susann shamelessly dished about Hollywood's secrets, she zealously protected many of her own. She kept her battle with breast cancer a closely guarded secret not only from her adoring public, but from friends and co-workers as well. She similarly downplayed her only son's autism. What does it mean for a shameless self-promoter and world-class exhibitionist to hide so many secrets? Don't go looking to Isn't She Great for answers, as it seems stunningly uninterested in its subject's complicated, contradictory psyche. It's as if Sigmund Freud had never existed. Among its myriad flaws, Isn't She Great suffers from a fatal lack of curiosity about Susann's inner life.
Susann was a world-class spiller and keeper of secrets, but Isn't She Great boasts no mystery or secrets of its own. Everything is out in the open. It's brassy, loud, pushy, and superficial–all bright campy surfaces with nothing underneath.
Midler's shit-eating grin of supreme self-infatuation bleeds into the film as a whole, poisoning it with an all-consuming air of self-absorption. The title quickly becomes hectoring and ironic for the audience as well as the other characters in the film. Rudnick and Bergman seem to view the film as a big campy comic-strip blast of tongue-in-cheek pop mythologizing, which makes the segments involving autism and breast cancer seem jarringly incongruous.
Stockard Channing and John Cleese round out the over-qualified, under-used cast as a tart-tongued actress and a go-go '60s publisher, respectively. Cleese's presence here reminded me of a sad little bit on the Ben Affleck vehicle Man About Town DVD where Cleese crows that his role in Man About Town was the best part he'd been offered since 2001's Rat Race. It makes me sad to think that the Paul Walkers and Ryan Reynolds of the world flit happily from role to role while Cleese sits by the phone desperately waiting for another Rat Race or Man About Town to fall into his lap.
Isn't She Great is a hopelessly botched confection. It's flat champagne, clotted, rock-hard cotton candy, or in the immortal words of Pierce's disapproving WASP, "chocolate-covered crap". It coulda been great, shoulda been great, but most assuredly is not great or even halfway decent.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure