Who would have ever thought back in the day that Warren Beatty would prove to be brilliant as a rapper and such a disaster as a white bread singer? The idea behind Ishtar was supposedly to update the silly fun of the Hope-Crosby buddy pictures, where a couple a schnooks parley their stupidity into some outlandishly exciting adventure. What Dustin Hoffman, Elaine May, and Beatty hadn’t paid attention to was the fact that it had already been done in both Stripes and The Blue’s Brothers. Those movies were also about losers, but they were idiosyncratic losers. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd were two goof balls who lived by some weird hipster code. There is not a single detail in Ishtar half as funny as Elwood Blue’s devotion to plain white toast. In Stripes Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are these two aging, under achieving live by the seat of their pants disasters waiting to happen. Neither set of characters ever fit in, but neither set ever wanted to fit in either. They are all sort of on the periphery of society, but at least they rule that small part of the world they choose to inhabit.
Beatty and Hoffman’s Rogers and Clarke aren’t nearly as interesting. Their only distinction seems to be in the fact that they are the two most pathetic, untalented, geek loser morons in the history of the planet. They dress bad, they can’t sing, they can’t really play their instruments, and neither one seems to doubt even for the slightest amount of time that they are the most brilliant talents in the Solar System. It must have seemed like a genius move for ladies man Warren Beatty to play a guy with such romantic disasters that he oftentimes bursts out crying like a baby, but when have crying adult men ever been funny or interesting?
Why did they decide to play dumb? Hope and Crosby were funny because they were always talking, scheming, and thinking a little faster than the rest of the plot. Neither Beatty or Hoffman’s character is smart enough to even follow the plot of The Road to Morocco.
Playing dumb can be really funny, but it is also really dangerous because at the end of the day people might just believe you. Jim Carrey played a moron in Dumb and Dumber but he managed to do it by channeling some anarchic scheming madness into his eyes and body. Hoffman and Beatty just look blank and soulless by comparison. On it’s best leg Ishtar hopes to be a little like the brilliant stupidity brought forth in Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, but Spinal Tap was a dead on parody of existing bad boy Rock and Roll behavior. We knew those guys and we could see the sparkling fun those actors had in redefining themselves as dopey Rock Stars. Who are Beatty and Hoffman lampooning? I’m sure a movie about the two biggest losers in the world must have sounded like a brilliant idea for two guys who have more than a little penchant for taking themselves too seriously, but it is hard to parody something so pathetic that it never existed. Steve Martin played a number of dumb characters but there was at least fire in their bellies. The guys in Ishtar are the boring wallflowers of the world. They probably shouldn’t be mocked, disgraced and beaten, but who really wants to spend close to two hours with them.
The best parts of Ishtar are Paul Williams goofy, purposely moronic songs, but they really aren’t anywhere near as clever as the goofy catalog of Spinal Tap and Rutles classics that people still put into their disk players from time to time. The Spinal Tap guys never seem to pass up an opportunity to get back into character, and Dan Ackroyd has never really seemed the same after losing Jake Blues to John Belushi’s drug overdose. I have a really strong feeling that at the end of the day, no matter how funny they thought they were, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman were pretty damn glad to be able to go back to being themselves. I’d almost rather watch Styx and Reo Speedwagon Behind the Music back to back.