Friday, September 13, 2013

Guest post: Ishtar

(Elaine May's Ishtar is now available in the director's preferred cut. Here's a review by Jason Comerford, a great friend and a fellow lover of film.)

As is the case with most “legendary failures” of its like, Elaine May’s 1987 comedy Ishtar is actually nothing of the sort. Entertainment writers, long dazzled by the catnip of the film’s prerelease turmoil and low box-office returns, have often tried to reduce Ishtar to a punchline about directorial hubris, but the qualities of the film itself far outweigh its weaknesses. May’s preferred cut of the film, at long last available on Blu-Ray, is admittedly a wildly mixed bag, but it’s a splendid comic showcase for stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.

Ishtar’s opening 15 minutes are arguably its strongest, as songwriters Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Beatty) hurl themselves over and over at the writing of the world’s worst pop song, with lyrics like “because of yourself, you don't know what I am.” (A jarring flashback relates the pair’s origin story; temporal displacement of this type might be an easy sell to a 21st century audience, but a typical 1987 matinee crowd probably found it off-putting.) Paul Williams’ deliberately awful songwriting provides many of Ishtar’s most memorable moments but it also serves as an effective platform for one of May’s pet themes as a writer-director: the travails of desperate but essentially good-hearted people on society’s fringes. Chuck and Lyle are deeply committed to their own talentlessness, and Hoffman and Beatty combine, in perfect sync, to create a marvelous comic portrait of insecurity and desperation.

Once Chuck and Lyle find themselves stuck in Morocco and enmeshed in a Cold War standoff, Ishtar’s energy waxes and wanes. May’s screwball-comedy plotting, a la the Hope/Crosby Road movies of the 1940s, provides at the very least a sense of bouncy comic momentum, but the constant plot switchbacks of the film’s second half become monotonous. Clarke and Lyle’s unshakable bond is felt deeply enough (especially so in an early sequence where Chuck leaps in to save one of Lyle’s disastrous solo performances) to make the threats to it seem of less serious than they actually are. Indeed, May’s perversely anticlimactic action finale seems to be deliberately subverted to add strength to the pair’s eventual reunion, the film coming full circle as the boys, back together again, warble their tone-deaf way through another set of lounge-lizard staples.

With films like Ishtar, the joys are in the details, and there are plenty to choose from, from the enjoyably loopy dialogue asides (Lyle’s inability to pronounce “schmuck;” an Arabian sheik who asks the duo, “Perhaps you would care to entertain at my worthless palace?”) to the predictably eye-filling photography from the great Vittorio Storaro. Walking away sanguinely with the whole picture, however, is Charles Grodin, whose cheerfully oily CIA agent provides a delicious strain of unfortunately timely satire of US government involvement in Middle Eastern politics (“If two Americans die, it has to be unofficially!”). Grodin is perfectly tuned into the same loopy wavelength as May and her stars, and it’s his contrast to the hapless heroes that gives the comedy its juice. Ishtar may not have the laugh-a-second architecture of your average knee-slapper, but its rough edges give it a depth and unique richness that remain in shockingly short supply.

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