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!