Reviled on arrival and largely forgotten for anything other than its title, which became lazy headline writers’ shorthand for “failure” for years thereafter (even as recently as when Carrie and her Sex and the City 2 bling ring took an ill-advised jaunt over to Abu Dhabi), Elaine May’s directorial career-ending Ishtar now counts among its only fans a small but dedicated bunch of revision-minded cinephiles, much like those who’ve turned Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate into Criterion fodder. In both cases, runaway budgets, monumental egos, and stubbornly uncommercial, misshapen final products served as plausible defenses for the films’ critical shellacking. But the rush among a certain subset to redress the films’ cavalier reception reveals another risible aspect both share that may have been just as responsible for what was, at least in Ishtar’s case, a rather overstated backlash: their unequivocal mockery of the American mindset.
The politics of the anti-Western Heaven’s Gate are unmistakable, especially in light of the confused undercurrent of rage and betrayal throughout Cimino’s The Deer Hunter; it’s a leftist tract funded by the sort of bread only venture capitalists could ever afford to pony up, and thus stands as a gorgeous monument to its own folly. But the small-scale Ishtar’s attacks are as indirect and seemingly aimless as its main characters’ camel trek across one very small stretch of Moroccan desert. Like with most of May’s other films, the butt of Ishtar’s jokes is the vast disparity between American men’s sense of worth and their credentials to fill their programmed role as masters of their domains. (Many have argued that her Micky and Nicky showed John Cassavetes up at his own game.)
Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) both seem the antithesis of that trend, since their utter failure as a Simon and Garfunkel-esque singer-songwriter team is all too apparent to them. Not a single lyric they muster is fit for mass consumption (a favorite: “Hot fudge love/Cherry ripple kisses/Lip smackin’, back slappin’, perfectly delicious!”). Fifteen minutes into the film and Clarke and Rogers, both recently dumped, have crawled out onto the ledge in a suicide attempt somehow rendered even more emasculating when Clarke’s mother pokes her head past the responding officers to chirp the chorus to Annie’s “Tomorrow.” When their agent books them to perform in Morocco, they’re both recruited as spies amid an impending coup that could destroy all semblance of peace in the Middle East. U.S. intelligence, seemingly unable to make up its mind which side to take, picks the crooners to go undercover. They remain too dense to realize their partner has been snooping on the sly, and both are less afraid of getting shot to death than they are of missing an evening performance at their Chez Casablanca engagement.
Both pathetic souls are aware that they’ve nowhere to go but up, which would seem to short any comedic mileage the movie could possibly get from their attempts to keep singing the blues away, but May’s casting of the notoriously controlling Hoffman and Beatty (who served as producer on the runaway production) in these roles hotwires her own jaundiced take on the male principle right into the fabric of the film itself. As many other critics have pointed out, watching actors as studied as Hoffman and as image-aware as Beatty try to play dumb for yuks just doesn’t compute; Beatty in particular goes out of his way to come in off-key and offbeat with each insipid musical refrain. But on some meta level, that might be the effect May intended. (Last summer, over at The House Next Door, Odie Henderson circumvented a similar take from the other side of the looking glass when he reckoned May must’ve been deliberately sabotaging her own movie to make it as horrible as possible.)
Why deliberately point out the inability for her intelligent leading men to pass muster as dunderheads, you ask? What better way to poke fun at an interventionist, triumphalist American government that routinely stages covert ops among squabbling nations on the other side of the world, and then unconvincingly plays dumb to maintain its plausible deniability?
Though shot by Vittorio Storaro, allegedly under some level of duress, Ishtar isn’t the most distinguished-looking desert epic, but the Blu-ray format does a lot to suggest depth. The picture has a parched patina, and black levels in some scenes are weak and blocky. But contrast is reasonably powerful and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of artifacts or print dirt. Audio comes in both 5.1 and the original mono mix. Both will have you cursing Paul Williams and Dave Grusin’s names.
<p>Go figure. No one saw fit to participate in a commentary track. In fact, no defense is mounted on the film’s behalf by anyone, in the form of either commentary or featurette. All the disc contains is five trailers for new films. Onward and upward, Columbia seems to be saying.</p>
After a number of delays, Ishtar finally hits Blu-ray, allowing everyone interested in revisionism the chance to engaged in some truly "Dangerous Business."