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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Ishtar" (Elaine May, 1987)

With Peter Biskind's new and largely unfortunate biography of Warren Beatty creating some re-evaluation of the star-producer-director-writer's career, the very-nearly age-old question is coming up again: Is the box-office debacle Ishtar, the largely Middle-East-set romp with Beatty and Dustin Hoffman doing a latter-day Abbott and Costello schtick, really all that bad? It's frequently referred to as the Heaven's Gate of comedies, mostly by folks unaware that Heaven's Gate is experiencing a critical re-evaluation of its own. But never mind that for now.

One can only really answer that question via a Region 2 UK DVD from Columbia/Tristar. My own feeling is, not only is it not that bad, but it holds up a good deal better than many other big-budget comedies of the 80s, none of which I'm prepared to name because I don't want to needlessly inflame the comments section. The picture moves at a relatively brisk pace, and Beatty and Hoffman display consistently good comic timing and delivery, with Hoffman doing some particularly inspired heavy lifting in a desert arms-auction scene relying on gibberish and bluff. It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that it'll only work for the individual viewer who actually enjoys that sort of humor, that is, very broad and pronounced schtick of the Abbott and Costello/Hope and Crosby type. Elaine May, whose work with Mike Nichols can be read as a direct reaction against that school, is not necessarily the person you'd expect to concoct a sort of homage to it, but she does mix things up. The notorious in-the-desert-with-a-blind-camel scenes, meant to evoke Beckett, come very close to wearing out their reluctant welcome, but the elan of the performers does actually pull them out of the fire, as it were.

What's also problematic is the conception of the lead characters, Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, as hack artists who don't have any idea how bad they are. This makes them fit into the May worldview of male-bonding losers first articulated in her prior directorial feature, Mikey and Nicky, and also complicates the picture on a level that it doesn't really quite want to sustain, despite the fact that it helps deliver a moderately pleasing ironic punchline. The Hope and Crosby films knew better, invariable casting the duo as entertainment journeymen of a sort, but not such quality that their work made them open to ridicule. It's not that the device completely doesn't work here, but that it ends up a token of unfulfilled ambition. And the pastiche songs by May, Beatty, Paul Williams and others can be pretty funny. (In the Beatty biography, Biskind rather nonsensically says that Williams' job of creating bad-but-not-audience-alienating songs for the picture was "an unenviable task." Why? You think Mel Brooks had a rotten time writing "Springtime For Hitler?" Or that the Spinal Tap guys didn't have a blast writing the likes of "Hell Hole?" That's the thing about Biskind World though: every task is somehow unenviable.)

Somewhat more underhanded is the storyline's amusing sendup of standard-issue racialist Western imperialist narratives: one portion of the plot hinges on a map predicting Ishtar's salvation with the coming of two strange men. Yup, just like in Avatar (or The Matrix, for that matter). That they turn out to be these two schmucks (or "smucks," as Beatty's character has it, his inability to pronounce the word sending up Beatty's own putative expertise in Yiddish slang) gives this tale a nice twist of self-deflating irony. Vittorio Storaro's desert scapes are quite beautiful to behold, and while Isabelle Adjani (as a Middle Eastern revolutionary seeking Western-style reform in her homeland) is obliged to hide her blue eyes behind her headscarf, she does flash a lovely breast at Hoffman to prove she's not a boy. In a PG-13 picture, yet!

I love Ishtar for a similar reason to why I love Burn After Reading: both films are angry that dummies can win just as easily as the smart ones though it’s clear that in both everybody is an idiot (even/especially the “intelligence community”). But May’s the true comedienne, seeing everything a joke all the way to the end, while the Coens are predictably more brutal. In any case, I think all the wonky tone stuff in Ishtar is just another joke, like look at this lopsided thing, and I think it’s hilarious.
It’s always been trendy to dogpile on Ishtar, but the movie never seemed like it deserved its reputation as a Hollywood mutt. I’m not saying it was a brilliant piece of work, but as you said, on the landscape of 80s comedies there’s no reason to hide one’s head over this one. I haven’t seen it since it was first released, so I don’t know what 23 years will make, but after having just seen A New Leaf for the first time on the big screen (after 40 years of loving it on TV) I’ve never been more ready to re-evaluate Ishtar. I’d love to see Paramount get off its ass and, if not release May’s three-hour cut of Leaf, then at least issue a decent DVD of the perfectly fine theatrical version, which contains, to this Walter Matthau fan’s eyes anyway, the actor’s funniest hours on screen. The movie itself is altogether wonderful, and it just makes me regret that May never developed as a director who was able to work consistently on her own projects and see them through the way she envisioned them.
It’s not on DVD, but it is on Instant Netflix.
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I said much of what I have to say about the divine Ms. May in FILM COMMENT a few years back, but I’m delighted to read your piece today Glenn, and second every endorsement for any and all of May’s films. ISHTAR is pure delight. "They call me “The Hawk” — it’s a gang thing." Indeed. As to “May’s three-hour cut of [A New] Leaf”, that’s a pipe dream I’m afraid. No such cut existed anywhere but in the editing room, though glimpses of May’s darker visions [i.e. the murders Matthau’s character committed before meeting May’s in the film] are glimpsed as dream/wish-flashes here and there in the Paramount version — sadly, that is the only version that shall, in all likelihood, now ever exist.
I saw this movie on VHS when I was probably seven years old, and I still can crack myself up thinking about Hoffman in the desert arms auction scene you mentioned. Also, that “Dangerous Business” track is some catchy shit, dude.
I have always had nothing but good things to say about Ishtar as well as listing it as one of my top guilty pleasures, so this somewhat newfound appreciation (of sorts) is not surprising. People came around on Heaven’s Gate (and to a point on FFC’s One From The Heart) and hopefully they will come around on Ishtar. I am not saying it is as good as Heaven’s Gate (it’s not) but it does deserve to be taken out of the gutter where it has been critically floundering for decades (yes, decades – it has been that long). I haven’t seen the film in a while, so I am going to go back soon, but from everything I can remember (and my memory in all things cinematic is pretty good) the film is worth much more than it has gotten over the years.
Ishtar is a great film, I dont care what anybody else says. I have always been a fan of Elaine May.
Anne
Hmmm…well, you can all prove your love by joining the ILoveIshtar group on yahoo groups! About there times a year, the group pipes up with some great conversation – like, who would you cast in Ishtar today, or when is there going to be a cd release from Rodgers and Clark, or whatever. Someone recreated the “smuck” scene with one of those digital character/dialog things online….I can’t remember where they posted it, but it was a great way to spend about 90 seconds.
Count me in too. I have always loved Ishtar.
Loved this film and without hesitation it is one of my favorite movies of all time. You will never see a more commited pair of performers, getting down and dirty for comedy’s sake. I would love you see out-takes, would love to hear the complete recordings of Chuck and Lyle made for the film. Glad to see some are still discovering this film.

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