The toxic reception Ishtar received upon its initial release exemplifies a phenomenon I like to call "The Curse Of Bigness." Epic size and scope is fine and dandy for costume epics, sci-fi blockbusters, or war movies but once a comedy balloons to a certain epic vastness people begin rooting for its downfall. Folks like comedies to be small, scrappy and agile, like an ace leadoff hitter, not big, slow and cumbersome. Two of last year's biggest surprise hits, Borat and Little Miss Sunshine, embody this less-is-more comic philosophy. Only a lunatic would argue that what made Borat an international phenomenon was its lush production values and striking sets. Besides, giant budgets and impressive production values often distract from comedy instead of augmenting it. Nobody ever laughs harder harder at a clown because he's wearing diamond rings the size of golf balls. Of course nobody really laughs at clowns to begin with but that's another matter altogether.
The problem with Ishtar from a commercial standpoint at least, is that it's a weird little Elaine May quirkfest inside the body of a giant adventure-comedy blockbuster. I will concede right off the bat that I am a shameless Elaine May fanboy. The Heartbreak Kid, A New Leaf, and Mikey And Nicky (the best John Cassavetes movie John Cassavetes never made), are three of my favorite movies. While Ricky Gervais was toddling around in short-pants May was perfecting the high-wire comedy of excruciating awkwardness, a singular subgenre characterized by subtly grimacing reaction shots and deadly social blunders instead of gags and conventional punchlines.
Ishtar isn't in the same league as May's previous three masterpieces but it's unmistakably a product of May's deliciously warped mind. Like all of May's films it's about small, desperate men chasing a ghostly mirage of success. In Ishtar those desperate men are Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, a pair of doggedly deluded singer-songwriters who refuse to let a complete lack of talent interfere with pursuing their show-biz dreams.
Ishtar gets so much comic mileage out of Hoffman and Beatty's hilariously awful songs (a typical song is written from the point of view of a dying old man who vows to leave behind love in his will) and sad-sack existences on the outer fringes of the outer fringe of show-business that it almost seems a shame that May has to shuttle the duo off to Northern Africa, where they become unwitting pawns in an epic battle between the CIA, its strategic dictator ally and a leftist guerrilla group.
May would almost certainly be the first to concede that her forte is elegant, subtle verbal humor, not big action set-pieces. Accordingly, the action elements of Ishtar feel a little perfunctory and Isabelle Adjani is saddled with the thankless role as a leftist freedom fighter that requires her to do little but look gorgeous and keep the plot moving forward. But Beatty and Hoffman are very funny, as is a droll Charles Grodin as a sly CIA operative who has embraced pragmatism as a sort of secular religion. Ishtar embraces a wide palette of comic types, from the sophisticated verbal humor that is May's specialty to the affectionate tin-pan alley spoofery of Beatty and Hoffman's unspeakable crimes against music to Strangeloveian satire involving the CIA's covert machinations to some priceless physical comedy involving a blind camel. Yes, a blind camel.
Spies Like Us rode a similar premise to boffo box-office but it delivered a much safer, more predictable style of comedy. Ishtar on the other hand boasts a blockbuster budget but an oddball '70s sensibility. May is notorious for going wildly over-budget and taking forever to finish the editing of her films (more often than not her films have to be wrestled out of her hands by lawsuit-happy studios) which makes her an incredibly perverse choice to direct a comedy this big. Ishtar may have killed May's directorial career but her famously difficult work habits played a big role in her downfall as well.
In this age of degraded humor, however, cinema needs May's singular genius more than ever. She's simply operating on a much higher evolutionary plane. It's a crime that May's work is so hard to track down. May's four directorial efforts beg for the deluxe treatment. In a perfect world Criterion would be working on a deluxe Elaine May box set as I write this, complete with the fabled 180-minute version of A New Leaf and lots of footage of May back in her Nichols And May days. Maybe then Ishtar could shake off the stigma of historic failure and finally be seen for what it is: a weird, funny little movie that had the misfortune of also being a $55 million dollar high-concept would-be blockbuster.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Secret Success