February 07, 2000 12:00 PM

Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing

Maybe Isn’t She Great, a comic biopic about novelist Jacqueline Susann, would have worked better as a musical. The title already makes it sound like one, and we know that Midler, who plays Susann, can sing (so can Lane, who is cast as her adoring husband, publicist Irving Mansfield). Great depicts Susann, the author of such trashy, sex-filled epics as Valley of the Dolls and Once Is Not Enough, as a lovable monster who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted, which was worldwide fame. “I crave,” she admits, “mass love.” Successful musicals are filled with similar oxygen-hogging creatures: Think of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! and Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Susann, or at least the version of her seen here, fits easily into their braying, needy ranks.

Unfortunately, Great is not a musical. It is simply a bad movie made by good people. Despite the combined talents of stars Midler and Lane, director Andrew Bergman (The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (In & Out), all skilled hands at making viewers laugh, Great is as misconceived as a beach vacation during jellyfish season.

The trouble lies in the movie’s schizophrenic attitude toward its subject, which alternates between scorn and overripe bathos. Thus, viewers get scene after scene depicting Susann as the ultimate vulgarian, a brassy babe who declares to admirers, “If they tell you that you’re some loud, crude, pushy little nothing in a too-tight dress and too much makeup, you tell ’em, ‘Just look at Jackie Susann.’ ” But in between these scenes, Great wants audiences to feel Susann’s pain—literally. She is seen visiting her institutionalized autistic son Guy and being treated for the breast cancer that would eventually kill her at age 53 in 1974.

Midler plays Susann as a cross between Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond and Roseanne. It is a scary combination. Lane has little to do other than gaze at his wife worshipfully. This leaves Channing, as a flamboyant actress who is Susann’s best friend, to steal every scene, which she does with style. (R)

Bottom Line: Once is more than enough

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