Rumors are funny things; nobody knows how they begin, but the bigger the subject, the looser the talk.
The rumors about Ishtar probably started with the collision of egos involved: Stars Warren Beatty (he also produced) and Dustin Hoffman have been known to infuriate their collaborators and inflate budgets, and writer-director Elaine May is a notorious perfectionist. Then the movie had its Christmas ’86 opening date scrubbed, which is usually a bad sign. The grapevine word was: Columbia Pictures had a $40 million turkey on its hands.
Well, Ishtar is here, and it’s just fine. Nothing great, no instant classic, but a smooth-running comedy with some keen satiric digs. It’ll make, well, some of its money back.
The movie pays homage to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies of the 1940s. It doesn’t have the improvisational loopiness of those films, but it borrows the same basic situation: Two ill-matched schmucks (Beatty and Hoffman) have a song-and-dance act, are trundled off to an exotic location, get into a terrible mess, and fight over a girl (Isabelle Adjani).
This being the ’80s (and with Elaine May’s penchant for topical humor), the mess has strong satiric overtones: Our heroes land in the North African country of Ishtar, where they are dragged into the middle of a dispute between a CIA-supported right-wing government and a left-wing rebel organization. Hoffman is recruited for work by a slick CIA man (Charles Grodin), while Beatty bumps up against Adjani, who supports the rebels and keeps saying things such as, “This means my life.”
May’s humor is effectively played, from the high-minded satire to some low comedy about a blind camel (a superbly acted role, by the way), although the climax doesn’t quite soar and there’s an abruptness about the ending.
One gag she milks is the duo’s pitiful songwriting efforts. The film’s original songs, written by May and Paul Williams (with some assists from Hoffman and Beatty), are monumentally bad, and the stars perform them with unbridled glee. (It may be relevant to note that neither Hoffman nor Beatty can sing his way out of a paper bag, and Elaine May knows it).
Primarily the film relies on the two stars to carry the comedy. They work well together, both visually (Beatty tall, Hoffman short) and vocally (Beatty soft, Hoffman hard). There’s also some play about their offscreen personalities; it’s an understood joke that Beatty’s doltish character is unsuccessful and inexperienced with women, when we know that the real Warren Beatty has probably had more women than any other man alive.
Their characters, dimwitted and hapless, are given a nice winsome quality by the actors. Early on, before they leave for Ishtar, Hoffman climbs out on the ledge of his Manhattan apartment; Beatty joins him to talk him out of this sudden depression. Hoffman laments that he has no job, no wife, no money. Beatty helpfully points out, “Hey, it’s taken a lot of nerve to have nothin’ at your age.” The film endorses that kind of nerve, which is one of the reasons I like it.
First published in the Herald, May 14, 1987
The movie’s made back a little of its reputation in the intervening years, but until it comes out on DVD the full-scale critical restoration will have to wait. It’s a really funny movie, partaking of some pleasant Sixties-style comedy with a dose of SCTV‘s “Sammy Maudlin Show” played out over 107 minutes. But Americans don’t do “satiric,” and the dumb conventional wisdom about this movie help kill it.