Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

It was the salaries, wasn’t it? Beatty and Hoffman got paid ridiculous sums of money for their contributions, which offended people’s moral sensibilities in all sorts of ways, such that a lot of them never gave the actual film a fair shake. There were lots of problems during production too, which I guess is kind of relevant, in an irrelevant way. At the remove of these three decades, though, I’d say Ishtar stands up pretty well. Cash aside, these are still really formidable performers, and they’re operating, quite effectively I think, in an unfamiliar and very productive register.

Just as much, and more, this is an Elaine May movie. And she’s a genius! An erratic one, perhaps, but beyond the not inconsiderable difficulties that come from having to work with said erratic genius, we pay the price for keying overly on that kind of thing. It’s a lesson we never seem to learn. Orson Welles could be difficult, or unreliable? That’s been disputed, but even if he was. Couldn’t we have forborne? The fact that we didn’t leaves us with the one-and-a-half films that he completely in the entire last 19 years of his life!

Anyway, I think this is pretty funny. And a little more besides.  May is primarily a comic craftsman, most particularly as a writer and improviser/performer. (Viz. her gutbusting contributions as a briefly featured actor in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks.) But as Mikey and Nicky, her underrated collaboration with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes shows, she is also aware of and up to addressing the weightier matters. However much Ishtar may superficially resemble a Bing-and-Bob frolic, its geopolitical focus is neither coincidental nor superficial. It’s something of an American Candide, in fact, and with much of the sharp satire and righteous anger that that source would suggest.