Derided before it even premiered in the spring of 1987, the last stand (directorial, at least) of Elaine May cast Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty against type: Hoffman is Chuck, the P-magnet; Beatty, Lyle the dolt. Both are struggling songwriters stuck in the New York City supper circuit. The joke is that they're struggling because they really, really suck. Everyone knows it except for Chuck and Lyle. Sadly, their delusion is even more relative in today's American Idol-reject times.
Their two-bit agent (Jack Weston, Dirty Dancing) gets them a gig in Morocco — about the only one he can secure. Thus sets into motion the Middle East political plot — a goof on the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road pictures. That homage was lost on me 26 years ago in the theater, but familiarity is hardly a requirement. Still, when Ishtar moves out of the Western Hemisphere, it's not as hilarious — encounters with vultures and camels and the great Charles Grodin notwithstanding.
The movie is at its best when Chuck and Lyle are "Chuck & Lyle," the lounge-singing duo, warbling such wannabe hits as "Portable Picnic" and "Love in My Will." About those songs: For being "bad" on purpose, they're awfully catchy. Paul Williams sure came up with some second-rate lyrics, but he could not hide his gift for sweet, sweet melodies. I once owned the Chuck & Lyle 45 single for "Little Darlin'," a precursor to the full soundtrack album I eagerly awaited … and I'm still waiting. That tie-in was axed when the film tanked.
"Tanked" is arguably an understatement, as Ishtar immediately joined the likes of Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck in the dubious club as one of Hollywood's legendarily rotten eggs. But it's not.
I suspect its behind-the-scenes largesse is to blame for most the intent behind the swings of brickbats. That story is an infinitely interesting one — one that unfortunately goes untold and unacknowledged by Sony's Blu-ray. With zero extras, the disc makes no attempt at addressing Ishtar's tortured history, reception and legacy. Its loss mars an otherwise welcome digital debut. —Rod Lott
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