Entering the Author’s Realm with ISN’T SHE GREAT and MR. JEALOUSY

The pair of comedies shows that not even authors can write the plots to their own lives.

Even though it doesn’t seem like it should be, watching authors onscreen rarely fails to be entertaining on some level. Of course, I don’t mean watching actual writers act along side professional thesps (sorry, Noel Coward). I mean, of course, watching movies where the central figure is a writer. The main reason writer characters are so interesting to watch is because of the kaleidoscopic way they see the world and the unorthodox way they approach it. The way a writer perceives and reacts, a lot of times to their own detriment, makes for the kind of cinematic experience that can either be greatly inspiring or a definite cautionary tale. Stephen King has seen reworked versions of his own author character battle terror, while Mickey Rourke’s Charles Bukowksi surrogate in Barfly shows just how complicated a relationship a writer can have with his own sensibilities.

For some, the world of comedy is the best area for a writer character to find themselves. Neuroses, ego, suffering for one’s art—there is a world of comedy in the writer’s creative process. Earlier this year, two vastly different but sterling examples of this world made their Blu-ray debuts, showing how writer characters can be comedy gold while also managing to say something.

Isn’t She Great

The 2000 comedy Isn’t She Great stars Bette Midler as real-life author Jacqueline Susann, a struggling New York actress trying to make it in show business despite the fact that she hasn’t got a lick of acting talent in her. After years of going nowhere, her devoted husband and manager Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane) suggests that Jackie write a book about what she knows best: Namely, the scandalous side of trying to make it big. The result is Valley of the Dolls, a racy novel about sex, drugs, booze and everything in between.

Released during the early days of winter 2000, Isn’t She Great was a flop that critics savaged and audiences stayed away from. This is unfortunate since the divine Miss M is hilarious here. Midler leads an all-star cast including Lane, David Hyde Pierce, Stockard Channing, Amanda Peet and John Cleese in this “just for laughs” retelling of one of the most iconic books ever written. Midler is on point with her timing and delivery, especially in the early scenes when we see her as a struggling actress. The moment in which she walks into a lake in Central Park, depressed by the fact that she can’t even make it as the sample lady at a grocery store, is hysterical. When writer Paul Rudnick’s script switches over to the creation of Valley of the Dolls, a different Midler takes hold, one who injects a bit of wit and a fire in the spirit of Susann herself. “We publish works in the tradition of William Faulkner and Herman Melville,” a snooty publisher tells Jackie. “They’re dead. They’ve stopped,” Jackie replies dryly.

It’s easy to see why Midler could have been drawn to the role. Like Susann, the actress/singer is herself a personality who is famous for being unapologetically authentic and not bound by societal norms. It’s this fact which makes Midler’s comedy all the more potent here. In the midst of the laughter, however, Isn’t She Great ends up doing right by the famous woman it portrays, showing her determination, will and the reckless abandon with which she tackled writing.

Mr. Jealousy

The hero—scratch that, the protagonist of the 1997 comedy Mr. Jealousy is Lester (Eric Stoltz), a struggling New York author who makes his living as a substitute teacher. Hands down the best thing to happen in Lester’s life is Ramona (Anabella Sciorria), his new beautiful and witty girlfriend. Lester is happy with Ramona but seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop in their relationship. When he discovers his girlfriend owns a novel written by her ex, Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), he becomes obsessed with finding out everything about him. Lester’s neuroses eventually lead him into Dashiell’s therapy group, where he ends up befriending his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend.

It’s far too easy to just assume that Mr. Jealousy is an insufferable comedy about an insufferable writer going around being insufferable. While there’s certainly an angle to Lester that’s aggravating, it’s also what makes him watchable. This is a man who has never believed in himself. He doesn’t believe he deserves success as a writer and he doesn’t believe he’s good enough for someone like Ramona. Like most writers, Lester is a victim of his own neurotic tendencies. It’s those tendencies which cause him to infiltrate Dashiell’s therapy group and which fuel the desperation to find out what Dashiell has that Lester is lacking. What starts out as jealousy and envy soon morphs into something quite different when the two men become friends. It’s here that Lester is forced into a mode of self-reflection that he hadn’t banked on that has him questioning virtually everything in his life, especially where he and Ramona are going.

Lester remains one of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most intriguing characters. He is an artist who is both relatable and maddening at the same time, a man who is constantly aiming for what he desires from life while never really believing he deserves it.

Obviously, neither of these titles can be considered quintessential comments on experience of the author. But what both Isn’t She Great and Mr. Jealousy do is give two wholly different comedic insights into the mind of the creative. There’s comedy in seeing Jackie and Lester trying to both get their voices out and then get their voices heard, all while trying to hold onto their own unique brands of sanity. The lunacy, the unpredictability, the seemingly irrational actions that feel sane and logical in their heads all speak to the unique planes of reality in which only minds such as theirs exist.

Isn’t She Great is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Mr. Jealousy is now available on Blu-Ray as part of the MVD Marquee Collection.

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