Picks and Pans Review: Ishtar

UPDATED 06/01/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/01/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

There are those who've been rooting for this long-delayed, over-hyped, outrageously priced comedy—$50 million or so—to fall on its fat one. But leave the accountants to lament the indulgence of paying starring superegos Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman some $11.5 million in salaries (about triple the entire cost of, say, A Room With a View). It's the movie that counts, and in this case it doesn't count for much. Far from being the Heaven's Gate of comedy, as advance poop had it, Ishtar is merely a muddle. Writer-director Elaine May may have intended a send-up of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures. But the tackiness of those movies (shot on studio back lots) was part of their charm. Here elephantine production values, including location filming in North Africa with real camels on a real desert, bury the nuggets of barbed wit in the script. May's subtle humor (best appreciated in A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid) doesn't play in Spielberg country. The film's early scenes, set in Manhattan, work best. Beatty, 50, and Hoffman, 49, are 30ish singer-songwriters. An agent, sharply done by Jack Weston, offers sound discouragement: "You're old, you're white, you've got no shtick." But the boys persevere. For a while it's fun listening to the frog-throated duo croak out purposely bad songs, many composed by Paul Williams. The sassiest is Love in My Will, in which Hoffman serenades a couple celebrating their 55th anniversary with morbid lyrics about the "big sleep." These tunes, a daunting 26 of them, move quickly from cute to not-so-cute to cloying. The plot involves a club date the boys do in Morocco, where a search for the secret map of the mythical kingdom of Ishtar embroils them in international intrigue. Reliable Charles Grodin gets a few laughs as a slimy CIA operative, but Beatty's ravishing real-life lady Isabelle Adjani, playing a terrorist, is wasted. The two stars show the strain of carrying the picture. Beatty goes along with the casting joke of playing the nerd sidekick to Hoffman's slick loverboy. But zany antics aren't his forte. Hoffman's impishness serves the film better until the sheer weight of the production grinds him down. Near the end, lying exhausted after a sandstorm, Beatty and Hoffman find themselves perused by two hungry vultures. "We're not dead, we're just resting," the boys wail. Maybe. Audiences, enduring the torpor of Ishtar, are likely to side with the vultures. (PG-13)

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