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‘Ishtar’ Is Still Far From Perfect — But It’s Still Unlike Anything Else

Elaine May’s 1987 flop, “Ishtar,” might well be the most accomplished punching bag in cinematic history.

The reasons aren’t hard to figure out, but are almost too numerous to name. Well before the film hit theaters, reports of infighting between May, her cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, the post-production team and the cast leaked to the press — believed to be courtesy of no less reputable a source than Columbia Pictures’ then-head of production David Puttnam. The film’s budget swelled when Columbia’s parent company, Coca-Cola, having frozen assets in Morocco, insisted it be shot on location in the North African country (then engaged in a war with Saharawi separatists). The crew heard rumors that the Palestinian Liberation Front — the group behind the recent hijacking of the Achille Lauro — might be trying to assassinate actor Dustin Hoffman. A hunt for a rare blue-eyed camel ended in tragedy when, arriving too late to make a purchase, the movie’s animal trainer discovered that the trader responsible for the creature had eaten it. Much hay was made of these misadventures.

But all the hacky jokes at the expense of “Ishtar” don’t measure up to the inventiveness of the film, in which a talentless musical duo stumbles into a Soviet-supported popular revolt against the U.S.-backed Emir of Ishtar and ends up landing a government-promoted record deal. Starting this week at Film Forum, viewers can make their own judgments about the much-maligned flick, which runs June 28th to July 4 in a new, 4K restoration.

There’s a reason “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, on finally seeing the film, apologized for a comic in which he presented “Hell’s Video Store” as containing only VHS copies of “Ishtar.” More mysteriously, but no less compellingly, there is a rationale for Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s admiration of the infamous box office turkey.

“Ishtar” is not a masterpiece. At 107 minutes, it is longer than it needs to be. As a narrative, about a lounge act from New York foretold by an ancient parchment with the power to foment a popular revolt, it’s in need of a sharper focus and a better farcical mechanism. It could be funnier and less fixated on the breasts of its female lead (Isabelle Adjani), but the film’s merits are singular and unreproducible. Rarely in film history has so much talent been assembled for so frivolous a feat of film-making.

Elaine May called in a favor from one of her leading men Warren Beatty. Beatty’s last foray into film was 1981’s “Reds,” for which he won a Best Director Oscar and was nominated for Best Actor. (May had done work on Beatty’s script for “Heaven Can Wait,” so he owed her one and also came onboard to produce.) Dustin Hoffman, last seen in 1985 in a Golden Globe and Emmy-winning turn as Willy Loman in the TV version of “Death of a Salesman,” was also indebted to May for her punch up on “Tootsie.” It’s hard to think of an equivalent instance of two performers returning from career peaks to a project like “Ishtar” and it’s impossible to drum up another film in which Beatty and Hoffman were cast so comically against type.

Hoffman, as Chuck Clarke, is an unaccountably confident lady’s man and Warren Beatty, as the ex-ice cream man Lyle Rogers, is a milksop seeking Clarke’s constant approval. Really? The casting may be the film’s greatest, and least understood, joke.

But then there’s the music, inexpertly performed and entirely credible as the work of Rogers and Clarke, two checkered-headband-clad losers deluded enough to think themselves the heirs apparent to Simon and Garfunkel.

To quote a line from the poets (actually May and Oscar and Grammy-winning songwriter Paul Williams): “Telling the truth can be dangerous business/Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand/If you claim that you can play the accordion/No one will hire you in a rock and roll band.” Quite.

Later (and saved for the film’s pre-credits): “Life is the way we audition for God/Let us hope that we all get the job.” It’s the next “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” truly.

There are moments in “Ishtar” where the nobility of its failure is apparent.

A scene in a Moroccan souk where CIA agents dressed in fezes and Arab agents dressed as Texans (and unknown partisans dressed in Hawaiian shirts) apprehend Chuck and Lyle could, with a better edit, be extremely effective with Oscar-winner Storaro’s camera work. “Ishtar” is also not nearly as AbScammy insensitive as one might expect from the period either, aspiring even to be a skewering commentary on U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts.

This being a May production, there are some solid one-liners. “Wasn’t I good enough to be your Communist?” Chuck presses when he learns that Lyle was selected by the rebels as an arm of the resistance. Those invested in the yiddishkeit can get a kick out of Hoffman coaching Beatty on the proper pronunciation of “Schmuck.” And that blind camel — the one the trainer worked so hard to get — steals the show by bumping into everything and stepping on Charles Grodin’s foot.

In recent years, defenses and reevaluations of “Ishtar” have been in vogue on culture verticals. And now, copping to liking it, far from a mark of shame, has become something of a shibboleth in alt-comedy circles. Elaine May, at 87 and hot off a Tony win, is hip with the kids.

We might have Lonely Island without Rogers and Clarke and we might have the lengthy runtimes of Judd Apatow. It’s even possible that movies would still have Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s tendency to subvert our image of celebrities, but one feels the tug of influence, however subliminal.

The truth is that those most inclined to mock May’s film — which, it must be acknowledged, was sandbagged in no small part to the fact that she was a woman writer-director — are aware of it only in the abstract.

With her signature pith, May said it best: “If half the people who had made cracks about ‘Ishtar’ had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].

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