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‘Ishtar’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 15, 1987

 


Director:
Elaine May
Cast:
Warren Beatty;
Dustin Hoffman;
Isabelle Adjani;
Charles Grodin;
Jack Weston;
Tess Harper;
Carol Kane
PG-13
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent


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Sure, there's a plot to "Ishtar": two bad musicians in a Sahara Desert spy-farce involving the CIA and a map that could start a Mideast revolution. But the story here is Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman goofing it up in the desert for $45 million. The screen veterans freewheel through Elaine May's "Raiders of the Romanced Jewel" hybrid with swaggery spirit. And they have a sand blast.

Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) are two untalented guys just burning to make it big. Their flat and cliche'd songs are abysmal. How abysmal? They cause people to stare openmouthed. And Rogers' wife and Clarke's girlfriend desert them. (Paul Williams wrote most of the schlock, apparently on purpose.)

Faced with no gigs in New York, the musical duds agree to play the Chez Casablanca, a nightclub in Morocco. But on the way, they get caught in a burnoose-and-dagger clash in neighboring (and fictional) Ishtar. The Emir, a CIA stooge, is battling a subversive left-wing group for possession of a sacred map that -- it's a long story -- could powder-keg the country.

The plot is trickier than quicksand. Shirra (the ravishing but listless Isabelle Adjani) is a desperate left-wing revolutionary who persuades Clarke to lend her his passport and hold on to her very significant luggage until he gets to Morocco. Next thing he knows, he's working for the CIA. Meanwhile Shirra has sweet-talked Rogers into doing covert favors for her. Go to the market, she tells him, find a guy called Mohammed and ask for a blind camel.

Both men are told to hide their missions from each other. And just about everybody, from the Emir to the KGB, wants to kill them. Through a series of convoluted events, the musicians (disguised in Arab robes) are duped into escaping into the desert, where arms dealers, CIA helicopter hit-squads and vultures wait. And it seems Rogers talked to the wrong Mohammed: Their camel's really blind.

Beatty and Hoffman (or is it Hoffy and Beatman?) -- with their bigtime presence -- don't by any stretch fit into the small shoes of these two down-and-outers. But authenticity isn't what anyone's after here. "Ishtar" is an unabashed vamp for a pair of household names, and as such it works, often hilariously.

Writer-director May knows how to write with characters in mind, not punchlines. Just how much she "directed" the ego-heavy Boffman (Heatty?) duo is hard to ascertain, but there are several scenes that seem to bear her comic stamp: When Hoffman collapses in the desert, an increasingly exasperated Beatty must repeatedly remind impatient vultures that his friend is not quite dead. And when Beatty steals furtively out of his room on a mission, he passes two men wearingfezzes and three desolate beggars. The five, all agents, tail him. Every time Beatty turns around, they leap back into begging position. And May has introduced the klutziest camel ever to schlep the sands.

His Hunk-ness Beatty can still convincingly transform himself into a bewildered moron. And Hoffman turns on the usual wired intensity to good comic effect. Together, they stumble and mumble, snort and cavort. They want to be Simon and Garfunkel, but they're Abbott and Costello.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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