ISN'T SHE GREAT

Directed by Andrew Bergman

Rudnick based his screenplay, such as it is, on a New Yorker article by Susann's former editor at Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda. Here, Korda has been renamed Michael Hastings and placed in the tiny hands of David Hyde Pierce, who plays Hastings as nothing but a carbon copy of Frasier's Niles Crane. He's a prissy fussbudget who abhors Valley -- which Korda didn't edit, because he became her editor for her third book, The Love Machine -- and sips tea with a pinkie dangling in the breeze. Perhaps Rudnick, who wrote In & Out, intended the portrayals of Mansfield and Hastings/Korda as some sort of in-joke, a backhanded bitchslap; they're two of the gayest straight characters in the history of filmdom.

But the casting of Midler is even more inappropriate, like serving ham during Passover. Midler, who hasn't shone on-screen since Divine Madness, is a larger-than-life persona rendered as a hysterical stick figure. Her emotions range from saccharine to maudlin; it's hard to tell whether she's laughing or crying. Midler essentially plays herself, discarding Susann's trademark slathered-on makeup and gravel-growl voice altogether -- and she even gets to sing standing atop a table, though Susann supposedly couldn't carry a tune. (According to Korda, she possessed "a flat, harsh, totally tuneless baritone.") Too bad the role didn't go to Stockard Channing, wasted here as a failed actress and, apparently, Susann's sole friend.

The best that can be said of Isn't She Great is that it allows Midler to do what she does best, which is play to the back row of the theater. But the whole film has a distinctly on-the-cheap, small-screen feel about it, as though it's a refugee from somewhere between 1978 and 1983, its sheen long since reduced to a gray membrane that covers every single frame. The first sound you hear is that of Dionne Warwick croaking -- that's all her voice is now, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow -- what surely must be a Burt Bacharach leftover from the Arthur soundtrack. And it only gets worse.

Opens Jan. 28.

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