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Ishtar: Director's Cut (Blu-ray Review)

5 Aug, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/6/13
Sony Pictures
Not rated.
Stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin.

In terms of personal career enhancement, having the box cover art for such a notorious comedy read “Undeniable Hilarity – Mike Clark, USA Today” ranks somewhere around, say, New York City mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner’s most recent exhibitionist meltdown. But, please, a little perspective before you whisk me to the gallows minus some molars. Actually released to mixed reviews (OK, low-end mixed reviews), the movie is, of course, best known for prodigious cost overruns partially sparked by Elaine May’s directorial indecision that led this Road to Morocco for the 1980s to be termed “The Road to Ruin” by one or more industry wags. Accordingly, easy-to-pronounce Ishtar has become, for a quarter century now, convenient shorthand to convey a bomb for all seasons immersed in a tsunami of red ink (and we’ve had quite a few younger upstarts drop just as dead this past summer, haven’t we?).

Truth is, any professional moviegoer sees at least a comedy a week (or two, or three) that is much, much worse than this mild but agreeable misfire with redeeming chuckles that also just happened to break Columbia Pictures’ bank. If memory serves, my long-ago review noted “undeniable hilarity” in the pre-desert NYC establishing scenes and a little more of the same near the end — atop, alas, a barren hour or 70 minutes in a long midsection where nothing in particular happened. I will still go with this assessment, if not to the degree that Sony’s elective quoting conveys, except for a couple tweaks. The hilarity, such as we get, likely will prove deniable by many who see it — and there is, to be fair to the desert footage, Dustin Hoffman’s not so culturally enlightened scene midway in (involving language barriers and Arabs) that is genuinely funny because the actor is really giving it his all.

So what is May’s script about (because I suspect that so many of its lambast-ers have never actually seen the picture)? Well, Warren Beatty and Hoffman play singer/songwriters named Rogers & Clarke — which is so close to Rodgers & Hart that it may be a not-bad intended gag — whose tunes are dreadful and performed by the leads wince-inducingly enough to make William Shatner’s old recordings sound like Dick Haymes at his peak. Desperate for any gig and abandoned by their respective squeezes (the gag here is that onetime real-life gangster-of-love Beatty can’t get a date), they take a bargain-basement engagement in a desert burg mired in international intrigue involving a threatened Emir and his CIA cronies (Elaine May veteran Charles Grodin can’t be beat here as an Agency smoothie). Tough as it is to believe given a movie of this vintage, the leads were already 50 when Ishtar came out, and thus, they’re a wee bit ripe for their roles. And Beatty’s then-g.f. Isabelle Adjani spends most of the movie with her face obscured — her character assumed to be a boy for much of the duration, though she (or her double) does flash a breast that I’m willing to bet has been Internet-immortalized for a couple decades. This isn’t a whole lot to work with, given that the Crosby-Hope Road to Morocco still boasts one of Bing’s greatest standards (“Moonlight Becomes You”); Anthony Quinn as its heavy; and the all-time bit where Crosby breaks up on camera when a camel spits in his partner’s eye (a startling surprise Paramount wisely let remain in the picture).

Yet as goofy ‘A’-list cinema goes, Ishtar doesn’t rank all that far below the Beatty-Jack Nicholson-Mike Nichols The Fortune from 1975 — another Columbia comedy flop but one that now seems better than it seemed in its day, something I don’t think anyone can claim to any notable extent here. Basically, you have to be broken up by the intentionally awful songs Paul Williams and others wrote for Beatty and Hoffman to mangle, which I grant you is a degree of investment that would put Charles (oh, wait, sorry, Chuck) Schwab out of business if this were his business model. I suppose some will carp that there are no bonus extras here, but can you see going to Beatty or Hoffman or Adjani or May and asking them to do a commentary? Instead, for a good Internet backgrounder there’s the Vanity Fair excerpt from journalist Peter Biskind’s book on Beatty, one that goes into a lot of gory details. One question has always puzzled me, though. Of the four movies May directed, three of them (A New Leaf, Mikey & Nicky and Ishtar) had horrible production and post-production histories. Yet the original version of The Heartbreak Kid (by far her best film and one of the great comedies of the modern era) seems to have come off without too many hitches. What happened there?

And by the way, the disc jacket for this unrated release lists this Ishtar as a Director’s Cut — even though the ultimate editor of Ishtar has always been a subject of some dispute, and this version doesn’t seem appreciably different from my memories of the New York press screening at the Ziegfeld (where a hetero male colleague of mine fell asleep on my shoulder, an occurrence I’ve always found touching).

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