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Ishtar Movie Review

beatty hoffman film sound

1987 – Elaine May – Woof

Notwithstanding the blind camel that steals the movie, Ishtar is an epic flop presented as an over-sized $40 million updating of the classic Hope/Crosby road misadventures.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play third-rate singer/songwriters who meet and form an act. Singularly terrible, together they really stink, leading to a problem with booking gigs. But their ever-resourceful (and gleefully sleazy) agent, Marty (Jack Weston), finds them work in Ishtar, a mythical North African country. There self-assured urban neurotic (and ladies' man) Chuck (Hoffman) and shy southern boy Lyle (Beatty) become involved in a CIA plot concocted by Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) to save Ishtar from a Communist takeover. Both Beatty and Hoffman try so hard to seem ordinary and untalented that they never let the audience forget their off-screen celebrity status, and their own role reversal. This is the film's one big joke, inside a joke, and it grows tiresome, though the blind camel does save a scene or two.

As a result, the worst moments are not the intentionally bad segments of Beatty and Hoffman trying to sing and sounding bad (which are wickedly campy) but those times when the movie unintentionally shows how out of touch it truly is with the lives of “ordinary” people. Its idea of a dead-end job is showing fortyish Beatty driving a ice-cream truck and jingling its bell. The dialogue sometimes manages a few amusing moments, as when Hoffman is on the ledge of his building and Beatty comes out to talk him down by saying: “Hey! It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Don't you understand that? You know, most guys would be ashamed. But you've got the guts to just say ‘the hell with it.’ You say that you'd rather have nothing than settle for less. Understand?”

It comes as a sort of worrisome shock when the sound of a gong heralds a change of setting from New York to Ishtar, and we see what appears to be authentic location footage. If ever a movie asked to be shot on a sound stage—even an intentionally hokey 1940s Hollywood sound stage—it is this one.

Elaine May's writing should be one of the film's strengths, but stories about the production reported that script revisions and rewrites and conflicts went on into the shooting schedule. Even its few defenders acknowledge the gaps and confusions in the story, especially after the espionage plot starts to develop. Overall, a disappointing film.

Cast: Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers), Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clark), Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel), Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison), Jack Weston (Marty Freed), Tess Harper (Willa), Carol Kane (Carol), Aharon Ipale (Emir Yousef), Fijad Hageb (Abdul), David Margulies (Mr. Clark), Rose Arrick (Mrs. Clark), Julie Garfield (Dorothy), Christine Rose (Siri Darma), Bob Girolami (Bartender), Abe Kroll (Mr. Thomopoulos), Hanna Kroll (Mrs. Thomopoulos) Screenwriter: Elaine May Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro Composer: Bajawa Producer: Warren Beatty for Columbia MPAA Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 105 minutes Format: VHS, LV Budget: $50M Box Office: $14M.

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