For Reel

Ishtar (1987)
June 1, 2016, 11:04 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Elaine May
3 Stars
IshtarNeither the failure nor the masterpiece that hopeful revisionists have touted it as, Ishtar is the least consistent of director Elaine May’s pictures, which still ranks stretches of it alongside the best comedies of the 1980s. It is a terrific satire of failed masculinity, here expanded into the failure of America’s dealings with the third world—Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) are so convinced of their genius that they continue to see themselves as masters of their domain even after arriving in Morocco, where they will blunder their way through arms auctions and CIA conspiracies. At the time of its release, critics like Roger Ebert argued that Hoffman and Beatty seemed tortured to be in the film, with Ebert going as far as saying they had, “all wit and thought beaten out of them.” If anything, what makes Ishtar so interesting (and such a failure in moments) is their blind over-eager enthusiasm—Beatty, in particular, seems overjoyed to be playing against type, and Hoffman goes so over-the-top in the auction sequence (the film’s only significant misstep) that one simply can’t argue that he’s sleepwalking. If the bad stretches are definitely bad, the first act of Ishtar is a remarkable feat of American comedy, acting as a short film about the fragile male ego and the birth of a friendship. To top things off, this section is particularly fruitful in demonstrating the brilliance of Clarke & Rogers’ bad songwriting. It is a difficult task to write a bad song where honest intentions can still be assumed, and May and Paul Williams never step too far into the preposterous.

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