Cinema Veritas

Written and directed by Elaine May

At the Sack Cheri

IT'S HARD to excuse writer-director Elaine May for spending $40 million on Ishtar. The movie is no Heaven's Gate-style disaster--it's pleasant and silly and has some truly hilarious moments. But it just makes you wonder what she spent all that money on.

It may have something to do with the fact that Ishtar features two of Hollywood's hottest stars. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play Lyle Rodgers and Chuck Clark, a singer-songwriting duo trying to make it in New York. Their only problem is that they are bad. Really bad. Even their agent (Jack Weston) tells them, "You're old, you're white, you have no shtick."

They insist on writing their own songs and the funniest scenes in this movie are their brainstorming sessions, which reveal their utter lack of talent. "There's a wardrobe of love in my eyes," Beatty sings, "Come look around and see if there's something your size."


Rodgers and Clark finally do get a club date, their big break. Unfortunately, the nightclub is in North Africa. The dippy duo sets off for the desert and soon find themselves embroiled in a Communist coup and a CIA plot.

The moment the movie switches from New York to Ishtar, a small fictional republic next to Morocco, however, it starts to look like and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom rip-off, complete with 7th century artifacts, a beautiful woman and a complicated plot. May wastes a lot of time on the political intrigue which traps Rodgers and Clark and diverts attention away from the lively interplay between the unlikely heroes.

May has so much fun with Beatty and Hoffman that she seems to forget that there's anyone else in the cast. Isabelle Adjani plays Shirra Assel, a member of the Communist insurgant group which opposes the government of Ishtar. Both Rodgers and Clark fall in love with her, though it's hard to tell why. She isn't around very much and her character is pretty silly. At one point, she flashes her breasts in the middle of and airport to prove she's a woman (doesn't everyone?), and although we're supposed to believe she's devoted to the revolution, she abandons the cause to run off and save the bumbling Americans.

Other superb supporting performances get short shrift. Tess Harper and Carol Kane, who play the wives of the hapless duo are featured only briefly and Charles Grodin's deadpan performance as CIA agent Jim Davidson gets lost in the mish-mash of the plot.

The last part of Ishtar returns to the funny, fast pace of the early scenes in New York. There's a great gag having to do with a blind camel and a scene in which Hoffman pretends to speak a Berber dialect is hysterical.

Buddy movies depend on how the well two actors work together. Hoffman and Beatty are completely believable, mostly because they look like they're having a great time. Rodgers and Clark are two losers, but they're redeemed by their affection for one another. "It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age," Rodgers tells Clark with utter sincerity. Beatty sometimes seems miscast as a shy nerd who is a loser with women and is prone to collapsing in tears, but he saves his character with a goofy charm.

Hoffman plays Clark (nicknamed "Hawk") with typical intensity and vigor. He portrays Clark's simple-mindedness with earnest enthusiasm and does not become a caricature.

Ishtar is an enjoyable farce. Without the enormous price tag, it would be a great little unpretentious comedy. Had May chosen to concentrate on the Beatty-Hoffman chemistry and eliminated some of the contrived plot, the movie would have been less frantic. And cheaper. It shouldn't cost so much to make us laugh.