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CRITIC AT LARGE

Separating Fact From Friction Over 'Ishtar'

May 23, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

There are movies it is very nearly impossible to see. They arrive, gasping and drowning in their hype or their notoriety or preceded by that mysterious, caustic word-of-mouth that can do as much damage as the equally mysterious positive word-of-mouth does good.

"The Great Gatsby" had a drumroll buildup equaled by few films in history. The Gatsby Look careened across tie-in ads in papers and slick magazines until a kind of "Oh, yeah?" backlash set in. It was all a critic could do to sit calmly in the dark and try to see the movie on its own terms, which were that it was undeniably beautiful, reverentially earnest, overlong but never uninteresting.

George Lucas kept "Star Wars" as much a mystery to Fox as to the public before its release, yet there were lines around the block on the morning it opened, drawn by a widely shared hunch that it would be something special, as it turned out to be.

Let us consider then the case of the Elaine May-Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman "Ishtar." Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait, avid for signs of terminal weakness and early demise.

Within the industry, much of the anger has nothing to do with the finished product and was in place before "Ishtar" was seen or released. In a period when it grows ever harder to finance all films, the widely reported and stratospheric costs of "Ishtar" have been salt in open wounds.

It will go down in history as the $50-million (reportedly) "little" comedy, thanks to star salaries, the director's perfectionist zeal and a very long overseas location. And while "Ishtar" is abundantly atmospheric, even its defenders can concede that it could have been shot outside Tucson or Rancho Mirage at little sacrifice in wit or aptness of feeling. How much do mesticating the film could have trimmed the budget is knowable, but not by me.

As the vast ads declare, "Ishtar" has its critical defenders, including Sheila Benson in these pages. I join the ranks, with some sense of enlisting in a small band of foreign legionnaires under siege in a desert outpost.

Yet I am also put in mind of the old story about the Boston ladies emerging from a theater, one saying, "A very funny play; I could hardly keep from laughing."

Those unable to set aside the "Ishtar" notoriety seem to have witnessed some other film than I did. It is full of very funny moments, and not only of Beatty and Hoffman proving that they would walk a camel for a mile.

It was the genius of Mike Nichols and Elaine May as a comedy team to create characters and situations majestically foolish yet the funnier because they were rooted in an observed reality.

"Ishtar" is, among other things, about obsession, especially the persistence of those who do something badly in believing they do it well. The world is full of terrible poets, songwriters and novelists who will never be persuaded to abandon their dreams.

Beatty and Hoffman's songwriters are well-developed comic characterizations, wonderful in their exultations and in their despairs, when their pain is almost palpable. It is their intelligence not their romantic identities that the stars are playing against. They are clowns but they are not grotesques, and like effective clowns they are very touching when the hard truths of their situation dawn behind their empty-eyed innocence.

At least one reviewer complained that the songs in "Ishtar" are not very good. Not very good! If the songs had the slightest claims on goodness they would ruin the point that Beatty and Hoffman are really terrible songwriters. What the songs are is supremely, surpassingly bad, chief among them the ghoulish ballad Hoffman croons to a couple celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary.

"Ishtar," like many comedies, is really a series of set pieces, that could be called The Tryout, On the Ledge, Dinner With the CIA (a fine portrait of bland deviousness by Charles Grodin), The Blind Camel, The Arms Auction (a wizard piece of work by Hoffman) and so on.

Not all work equally well, as happens in comedies, although the most compromising problem is that the author did not come up with a socko finish to top the best of what had gone before.

Over the years, all three principals have made various declarations of independence from what you might loosely call the Hollywood norms and been identified as difficult. Some feelings about this, I have to think, have heightened or sharpened some of the negative responses to "Ishtar," as if it were a well-deserved comeuppance.

No film is everybody's cup of tea and there are disappointments to be felt about "Ishtar," at any price. It does suggest that characters and relationships, not logistics, are the director's strong points. But as an entertainment, set against a backdrop of comment about the United States and its clubfooted covert adventures in the affairs of other countries, "Ishtar" has more laughs to offer than the hostilities would have you believe. It is not so much let the buyers beware as let the buyers keep an open eye.

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