Thursday, April 23, 2015

Recommended!: Ishtar (1987)

Readers of a certain age might be shaking their heads over reading the title of this post. Elaine May's Ishtar, a Hope/Crosby style road movie starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, became one of the most reviled movie of the 1980s. The rumors of difficult shooting, bloated budgets, and studio interference (as well as a very real conflict between Beatty and an executive who took over the project during post-production) fed the movie's reputation as an outsized failure, leading to it being extensively reviled by people who never even bothered to see it.

A generation after its release, it's easier to see Ishtar for the low-key, funny, and very charming piece that it is. Beatty and Hoffman are winning as a pair of none-too-bright songwriters, whose gamble on a tour of the Middle East puts them on opposite sides of a brewing revolution, and in the gunsights of a contingent of dingbat CIA operatives (led by a bemused Charles Grodin). May writes and directs the movie with a light touch that contrasts beautifully with the movie's darker elements, including the growing, painful rift between its protagonists and America's clueless interference in Middle Eastern politics. (The movie made the rounds for a revival in the early 2000s, and in those screenings seemed a prescient picture of Bush's Iraq bunglings.)  And the duo's songs, by Paul Williams, are both deliberately dire and tellingly, wickedly hilarious.

The fallout surrounding the movie meant that May would never direct another. It seemed a sad, implosive climax to an incredibly strong run as a comedienne, performer, and filmmaker, though she did return as a writer on a couple of movies by longtime collaborator Mike Nichols. After a career as a brilliantly funny comedienne into the 60s, May took up acting and playwriting before directing her first film, A New Leaf, in the early 70s. Her filmmaking process was a deeply collaborative one, and the resulting long shoots, miles of footage, and blown budgets did not endear her to studio executives (though one suspects that a male filmmaker guilty of the same transgressions would be praised for his integrity). But though her directing oeuvre only includes four movies, they're all worth seeking out for their off-kilter sensibilities and deep, deep humanity. And they only scratch the surface of the total life's work of this fiercely intelligent and insanely funny person. If you're looking to explore the work of a female filmmaker, or just want to be entertained by a movie balancing a unique style with strong characters and a knowing, human sense of humor, the work of Elaine May in general, and Ishtar in particular, is a great place to start.

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