It sounds wrong referring to such a big-budget movie -- especially one associated with such big-name talents -- as "little," but that's how it comes across. A postmodern romp through the desert in the Hope and Crosby manner, "Ishtar" wants to be perceived as modest and unassuming (a profoundly odd thing for a $40 million movie). It's scaled large, with teeming extras, helicopters and the vast desert landscape stretching out to the horizon, but it stands there on our doorstep, this white elephant of a movie, blushing like a self-conscious schoolboy embarrassed by his size. It doesn't have the heart to be big; its spirit rattles around inside it like a marble in an oil drum.
The director, Elaine May, who also wrote the screenplay, has given the film a leapfrogging rhythm. Lurching back and forth in time and place, it chronicles the adventures of the singing/song-writing team of Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty), a pair of bumbling no-talents who are so abominable that the only gig they can get is in Ishtar, a mythical kingdom in Morocco (read Marrakech). Bluntly put, Rogers and Clarke are bad songwriters, and what they lack in talent they fail to make up for in charm.
Individually, Rogers and Clarke have spent years making the rounds of small-time dives -- the clubs they play look like pancake houses. They meet one night at a New York restaurant when Lyle compliments Chuck on one of his songs (a macabre little ditty called "Love in My Will," which he dedicates to an elderly couple sitting ringside). They immediately hit it off and, after comparing notes and rejections, become partners in song. Their friendship, it seems, has an incontrovertible foundation: They respect each other's failure.
While the picture's in New York, its tone is relatively assured. May seems really to identify with the world of show-biz small-timers, with bad mikes, and surly waiters, and singing through clanking silverware. (She probably soaked up plenty of this stale-beer-and-cigarette-smoke atmosphere in the early days of working the clubs with Mike Nichols.) In these early scenes you can feel her sympathy for these two miserable dolts. She has a feeling for the delusions of the talentless, the struggling actor/waiters and would-be playwrights and dancers dotted all over New York. The movie's roots are in this lower stratum of the entertainment industry; it's the world seen through the tunnel vision of Variety and Backstage and Billboard, and as long as it stays there it has an appealingly daffy, screws-loose quality.
The movie lands in the rough, though, when it cuts from the streets of New York to the sands of Morocco. At that point, the picture loses its personality; there are moments here and there but they're buried in second-rate action-adventure high jinks involving a pretty revolutionary (Isabelle Adjani, in the Dorothy Lamour role), a CIA agent (Charles Grodin) and a blind camel. Nothing in this milieu seems to evoke anything from May. Or the actors either.
This may be the worst performance Beatty has ever given, worse even than "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" or "Kaleidoscope." Watching Beatty in "Ishtar" is like watching a man scuff up his $1,000 shoes in order to appear more likable. The ambling, shuffling style he has used now in practically every movie since "Bonnie and Clyde" is less winning and more calculating than ever. As a star, he seems to insist on casting himself against type, on playing the fool. It's as if he couldn't bear the idea of presenting an image of himself as a capable, formidable, potent figure on the screen. Even his John Reed in "Reds" was a bit of a duffer, and his performance here is an act of self-emasculation.
One of the central jokes in the movie is that Beatty can't get girls, and, conversely, that Hoffman can. But both performers here seem to be caught up in a kind of shrinking game. It's a pretty grim spectacle, watching these two middle-aged movie stars trying to outcute one another. Usually star performers do battle over salaries and close-ups and top billing. (That's why God made agents.) But here Hoffman and Beatty seem to fight over who gets to be second banana.
Hoffman isn't bad in the film; unlike Beatty, he at least seems to be in there working to make the jokes pay off. But Hoffman isn't really right for this kind of role. He's too much of an actor. You can see that he doesn't have as much to engage him here as he might have in a more substantial role, and so all his energy is directed toward keeping himself in check -- gearing down.
Given her tastes, it's not surprising that May is most engaged when working with the movie's mangiest critters -- the camels, the vultures, Charles Grodin. As the CIA agent in charge of suppressing the revolutionary element in Ishtar, Grodin doesn't do anything he hasn't done before, but he, and Jack Weston in a smaller role, appear to be the only ones on May's wavelength. Grodin has a one-of-a-kind quality on the screen, a sort of inspired spinelessness. And with his cat-burglar rhythms -- he seems to play all his scenes as if someone were asleep in the next room -- he's become a very sly scene-stealer.
But stealing scenes in "Ishtar" isn't much of a heist. Nobody seems to want to step forward and take control. In making the film, May seems to have found herself in a curious bind. Caught between making the picture sizable enough to justify the presence of its stars and maintaining its status as a cozy, table-for-two affair, she's tried to play it both ways. As a result, the movie can't figure out what it wants to be. It's schizoid.
May can't settle on a comic style, either. The movie should be a toss-away: That's what the road pictures were -- disposable entertainments. They weren't designed to endure, and their flimsiness and lack of pretention, their sheer hokeyness, was part of their charm. As a writer, May has an extraordinarily weird turn of mind, and on the face of it she might have been the perfect person to make an updated road picture. But the suggestion that May would be the right director for a picture on this scale has always sounded like a kind of perverse joke. What could be sicker than a $40 million "Mikey and Nicky"?
May's sensibility is literary; her specialty the hairpin phrase, the misplaced emphasis, the verbal jig-step. As a result, the payoffs to her best gags usually hit you like punch lines; they're subtler and more glancing, like casual asides at a dinner party. Not surprisingly, the bad song lyrics (which she cowrote with Paul Williams) and the lines that Hoffman and Beatty half-mutter under their breath are the shiny nuggets glistening in the creek bed.
There's an off-putting arrogance to frivolity that's given this kind of grand-banquet treatment. The Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has given the movie a luscious, golden sheen, but it's the wrong look for the film; it's too rich for the jokes. But even with Storaro in charge of the visual side, the movie is indifferently directed. Perhaps May felt that a shrinking, wallflowerish tone would help audiences excuse her half-heartedness in the handling of the plot and the big showcase scenes. In her flustered, brainy-inept way, she seems to be saying that trivial details like shaping a scene or coherently advancing the plot are the sorts of things that any old hack can do. But her manner here is a kind of esthetic cowardice; it's meant to get her off the hook -- "Please forgive me, I'm brilliant."
On one level, "Ishtar" plays as an expression of May's ambivalence about making a Hollywood-style movie. She and her stars can't conceal their superiority to their material (and, by extension, their audience). Subliminally, "Ishtar" is a fantasy of what might have happened to the three stars -- Hoffman, Beatty and May -- if they had been trapped on the lower rung of the show biz ladder, and the two actors in particular indulge in an exclusive, private-joke attitude toward their characters. ("What a riot, huh? Us not being talented.") They're slumming.
May has one of the most distinctive voices as a writer of anyone working in film -- it's become a sort of parlor game, picking out Elaine May lines in movies -- and when you hear it in "Ishtar," it's a cherishable, divinely loopy, out-there kind of sound. But you only hear it intermittently, and then through staticky channels. May's a verbal, not a visual, comedian. She doesn't have the skill as a director to strut her best comic stuff. And her larger-than-life stars, despite their efforts to diminish themselves, can't get small enough for the film. Wandering through the movie, they look buffoonishly outsized, like clown-Gullivers in Lilliput.
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