Cinema: They Got What They Wanted ISHTAR

Directed and Written by Elaine May

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"Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound." That lyric, warbled by Hope and Crosby as they jounced along one of their more amiable roads back in 1942, is outrageous enough to have been penned by Rogers and Clarke, the comically dreadful songwriting team played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar. The two pictures share similarities besides their North African setting: agreeably low-keyed playing by their stars, a plot that involves them dangerously in local politics, and about the same quota of gags. There is one important difference: Ishtar cost roughly 40 times as much as Road to Morocco. Laughter can choke on such wretched excess.

The auteur of Ishtar the movie is film's shyest comic talent, Elaine May. The auteur of Ishtar the event (or would-be event) is the medium's shyest -- but also slyest -- actor-producer, Warren Beatty. It is important to keep those functions separate in mind. Otherwise it is hard to enjoy either the film or the media outcry that any overbudget, long-delayed (six months) production is bound to engender.

May is a woman who makes wallflower movies like The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf, whose fine individual qualities are overlooked by the great, noisy media bash of the age. Beatty is, of course, Beatty: a man in whose career- drama the actual movies he stars in are merely incidents. In a daringly speculative new book, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes (Doubleday; $17.95), Critic David Thomson puts it this way: Beatty's ambition now is "to see if he can be only a star -- not a star kept alight by regular work and appearance, but a star who exists according to the self-perpetuating mechanics of stardom." In this grand scheme, his notoriety as a womanizer is of small consequence -- a titillating false trail to keep the gossip press yapping. So is acting, at least in the conventional sense of the word. Performing is something that Beatty, whom Thomson calls a man "doubting and growing querulous . . . at the advisability of the whole pretense," must infrequently and reluctantly do in order to secure a larger, much more complex and devious aim.

This goal is to see if he can turn movie production into a form of seduction, in which large, supposedly rational corporations are encouraged to spend bloated sums of money for unlikely enterprises. Five years ago, Paramount and Barclays Bank parted with not less than $40 million to make Reds, an epic-scale love story of two American radicals of small historical importance and no contemporary resonance. Now he has persuaded Columbia Pictures to throw a similar sum at this modest little comedy.

To be sure, May has sent her plot sense out for assertiveness training. One recognizes her terrible songsters as authentic May characters; she has always had compassion for articulate, depressed dreamers grounded in reality only by two left feet. With visions of Simon and Garfunkel galumphing through their minds, the Rogers and Clarke duo have been sent by their agent to try out their new lounge act -- as far out of town as possible. In Ishtar, they get muddled up with Isabelle Adjani, whom they both mistake for a boy at first; a CIA operative (Charles Grodin) who is not nearly so smooth a counterrevolutionary as he thinks he is; and a blind camel that provides the film with its best running -- actually stumbling -- gag.

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