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FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

Isn't She Great

Jacqueline Susann deserved better than this soft-pedaled piece of schmaltz, which stars Bette Midler as the Valley of the Dolls author and Nathan Lane as her puppy-dog publicist of a husband. By better, I mean worse: a bio-pic that matched its subject in all her gaudy, greedy, grotesque glory. More hungry than talented, Susann bombed on stage until Mansfield persuaded her to write what she knew: steamy novels about has-been actresses, horny studs, tranquilizers, and booze. A poignant New Yorker reminiscence by her Dolls editor, Michael Korda, prompted the movie and contributed to the mini-revival that Susann enjoys today, 25 years after her early death from breast cancer.

Midler's efforts to unbutton her uptight editor (Frasier's David Hyde Pierce) and his starchy family provide the film's biggest laughs. But screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Andrew Bergman want bathos with their biography. We watch a wisecracking Jackie undergoing radiation and listen in on her regular conversations with God. Squeezed into the Pucci pantsuits that the statuesque novelist favored during her talk-show rounds, a shrill and overbearing Midler never finds the character behind the caricature. The film can't decide whether to embrace or recoil at the way she takes her husband -- and everyone else -- for granted, ultimately saying, through Lane's voiceover, that the driven Jackie still deserved a big fat hug. Perhaps Todd Haynes could have sympathetically dissected such an unsympathetic celebrity. Isn't She Great isn't that movie.

-- Scott Heller


Eye of the Beholder

"Beauty," so goes the password for the surveillance agent code-named the Eye (Ewan McGregor, who looks as if he'd spent a long time in a room smoking cigarettes), "is in the eye of the beholder." For Stephan Elliott (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), who adapted Eye of the Beholder from the Marc Behm novel, beauty seems to consist of how many ways you can shoot a transition from one American city to another through a snow globe. That's a lot of snow globes, as the Eye chases vampy serial killer Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd, minus whatever it is that made Double Jeopardy an unlikely hit) from Washington, DC, to Butthole, Alaska, in a ludricrously stylized and clumsily incoherent psychological thriller that looks as if it might have been started and abandoned by Brian De Palma in 1978.

Why is the Eye so worked up about Joanna? Beats me -- she's just a tiresome cliché with bad taste in wigs whose penchant is doing away with wealthy, disagreeable men and making off with their booty. Some effort is made to fill in the Eye's background -- his wife and child left him for some reason -- but that's just an excuse for Elliott to indulge in the fancy but tedious computer effects that should have been history when movies like The Net bombed big-time. As for Joanna, she's just a lost little girl whose daddy abandoned her at Christmas. More a self-indulgence than an exploration of voyeurism or obsession, this should all be gone in the blink of an eye.

-- Peter Keough


A Map of the World

As Aliens star Sigourney Weaver learns in Scott Elliott's restrained but ragged adaptation of the Jane Hamilton novel, battling extraterrestrials is nothing compared to small-town Wisconsinites. Here the statuesque actress plays Alice Goodwin, a blunt-spoken mom who finds her rural community morphing into 17th-century Salem when the daughter of her best pal (Julianne Moore) drowns on her farm. But a dead child isn't tragedy enough for this bad-mother melodrama: Alice, eaten alive by guilt and on the brink of breakdown, gets hit with charges of sexual abuse.

For a first-timer, Broadway wunderkind Elliott has convened an unusually pedigreed cast. Weaver fuses steely sarcasm and an au naturel sensuality that, to her credit, raise Alice above victim status. She's joined by theater stalwarts David Strathairn as her ball-busted husband and Arliss Howard as her swaggering lawyer, both of whom hold their own next to Weaver's tight-lipped indomitability. Yet for all the plum acting, the film falters under Elliott's clunky direction; the script, too, lords a disturbing class arrogance and pitches some unintentional eye-rollers, such as when the steadfast Moore, whose recent outings rival the Atlantic in saltwater production, blubbers, "It's amazing how much a person can cry." Just as amazing is how this potentially powerful Map can chart such a crooked course.

-- Alicia Potter


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