Cinema: They Got What They Wanted ISHTAR

Directed and Written by Elaine May

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This may sound like a sweaty hubbub, one of those desperately contrived comedies that want to have their overproduced action sequences and devour them satirically too. But May is a writer of scripts that are all sneaky asides, no obvious zingers allowed. She is not one to let her voice be drowned out by either a lot of exploding hardware or the buzz about Ishtar's delays and cost overruns. One finally cannot resist warming to a movie in which people are astonished to find out that Gaddafi is the name of a man not a country but are strangely gratified to learn that vultures, like tyro songwriters, work "on spec." And that contains, above all, a golden trashery of dreadful pop lyrics ("There's a wardrobe of love in my eyes,/ Come back and see if there's something your size").

One can almost hear the practiced seducer's rationalization: "What's the harm? Everyone got what they wanted, didn't they?" Heaven help us; it's close to being true. May, whose painstaking ways and modest grosses do not usually commend her to the studios, gets to work in something near her best vein. Hoffman has a role nicely suited to the comic whine of his neuroses. Beatty, 50, has one in which his distracted air and his lack of traditional star presence can be made to look like modesty -- though at his age, his looks are no longer flawlessly tailored to his boyish manner. Thomson has an occasion for his book and a confirmation of his imaginative insights into the star's character. The rest of us can enjoy a movie that is reasonably genial and diverting. At a cost of $10 million or $15 million, it might have made the studio happy. But even the misery of its unrecoupable costs is cushioned; the management that initiated the project has been replaced, and the new team can cheerfully disown it. And the Great Seducer skips off to the next bed -- er -- boardroom.

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