Costly `Ishtar' weighs in at box office. Lots of second-guessing over Elaine May project

From all accounts, the making of ``Ishtar'' cost too much, took too long, and caused too much aggravation for the people who worked on it. How did the picture finally turn out? It's a mildly amusing, reasonably diverting comedy with a whimsical plot - about failed musicians tangling with spies in the North African desert - and a few good laughs. Dustin Hoffman gives a wry and wiry performance. Charles Grodin is uproarious, but he's stuck in a supporting role. Warren Beatty almost plays convincingly against his own romantic type. Isabelle Adjani almost stands up to the superstar competition on either side of her.

And the filmmaker who dreamed up the project, Elaine May, almost redeems her promise as a bold, nearly visionary director whose biggest shortcoming is a spirit too adventurous for Hollywood to handle.

``Ishtar'' focuses on two New Yorkers named Lyle and Chuck, a would-be Simon and Garfunkel with lots of ambition but not a speck of talent. So far the most musical work they've landed is singing in a piano-bar and jingling the bell on an ice-cream truck.

Desperate to make a splash, they take a singing job in Morocco at a ``Casablanca''-clone saloon. Their adventure starts when Chuck becomes a willing patsy for two wildly different new acquaintances: a could-be terrorist and a slippery CIA agent, played by Adjani and Grodin, respectively.

This material could have made for a biting satire - not only of urbanites out of their element, but of international connivers who'll do anything to advance their ever-more-dubious cause. Grodin's character is particularly promising as a butt for topical comedy, and he duly provides the most pungently hilarious moments of the movie.

The picture doesn't get under the surface of its own ideas, though. Just when you're ready for May and company to mine their material for hidden gold, the story lurches into a new batch of superficial twists and turns. And so it goes, for nearly two hours of tantalizing but never dazzling entertainment.

It's hard to watch ``Ishtar'' without thinking of the stories that circulated before its release. Stories about the budget soaring to $40 million, about tensions between filmmaker and stars, about May shooting more than 50 takes of a single scene. Not to mention other exploits by the director - like bulldozing a patch of the Sahara Desert so it would photograph better, or spending piles of money on a search for just the right camel.

Even people who don't follow behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt found themselves wondering what happened to the comedy that was vigorously promoted for a Christmastime release last year, only to be yanked abruptly from the slate and rescheduled for today, several months after its intended premi`ere.

Should such developments - the ballooning budget, the delayed debut, and so forth - influence reviews of ``Ishtar'' now that it has arrived? Theoretically, no. All that matters is what's on the screen, and whether it makes us laugh or cry or yawn. If filmmakers want to sink $40 million into a project, it's their business. They might even triple that amount in earnings, as May and Beatty reportedly did with ``Heaven Can Wait'' a few years ago.

Still, it's hard not to measure the accomplishments of ``Ishtar'' against the resources that were lavished on it. There simply isn't $40 million of excitement (or adventure, or humor, or anything) to be found among its exotic landscapes, satirical music numbers, and wobbly chase scenes. The dialogue doesn't sparkle; the acting doesn't snap - except Grodin at his best moments; and the story doesn't follow up its cleverest notions.

``Ishtar,'' in sum, is a run-of-the mill movie. Put the hype and the gossip out of your mind, see it on a Saturday night when you have nothing else to do, and you'll have a pretty good time.

If you start thinking about that $40 million, though - or May's excellent past work in ``Mikey and Nicky'' and ``The Heartbreak Kid,'' or the crackling performances that a combo like Hoffman and Beatty should be capable of together - you'll end up wondering how so much talent and treasure could produce such an ordinary pile of sand.

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