I wanted to like Elaine May's "Ishtar."
Alas, I found the 1987 box office bomb a muddled mess, the prevailing critical opinion when the film was released. In recent years, the movie has drawn its share of fans who consider it an unfairly maligned classic. As a May fan, I hoped to agree with that revisionist movement. But the movie was painful to watch.
Having read for years about the comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, I decided to check out the film when discovering it on cable TV. Written and directed by May, "Ishtar" has moments of brilliance sunk by a preponderance of incoherent scenes surprisingly berift of laughs.
Beatty and Hoffman are untalented songwriters and performers in New York who implausibly are signed to a tour of Morocco and the fictional country of Ishtar, a desert kingdom somewhat like Saudi Arabia. The two get mixed up in revolutionary plots and CIA intrigue.
Rarely generating comic chemistry in the Mideastern scenes, Beatty and Hoffman do achieve pathos in the first part of the film covering their flawed performing career in New York City. If May had kept the story there, she might have achieved a poignant and nostalgic show business film like those of Woody Allen. "Ishtar" sinks into the sand when it moves to the Mideast.
Charles Grodin gives an interesting performance as a CIA agent maneuvering to save Ishtar's ruler from being overthrown. The French actress Isabelle Ajani is largely wasted as member of a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the ruler. Jack Weston turns in his trademark performance. Beatty and Hoffman eke out a few laughs, but don't sustain the comic momentum.
Filmed in Morocco, the film exceeded its budget, and was plagued by conflict among May, Beatty and Hoffman and bad publicity. While May revived a successful screenwriting career, she didn't direct another film after "Ishtar."
May's work as Mike Nichols' partner heralded her as a major comic talent, which she exhibited in screenplays like "The Birdcage" and her directing "The Heartbreak Kid." She recently received a Tony award for her performance in Kenneth Lonergran's Broadway play "The Waverly Gallery."
But after "Ishtar," she fell short of her promise as a movie director, never reaching the heights of Nichols, Allen and Mel Brooks. While not a complete failure, "Ishtar" is a curious meltdown of a brilliant talent.