The Road to Ruin


The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)


It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.


The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).


I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)


The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

21 Responses to “The Road to Ruin”

  1. Comedy is subjective, but I disagree completely. I’ve come to love this film, and watch it at least once a year, giggling uncontrollably

    I did dislike it the first time I saw it though. not for your reasons though, but because 80s comedies had trained me to expect something very different. The plot isn’t streamlined like an 80s comedy, it’s shaggy & meandering. There’s no clear sympathy for the fools & no sarcastic hero. More to the point, there’s no big SFX climax. They keep talking about a map of the lost city of Ishtar, in any Spielberg produced romp, they’d go there in the 3rd act, matte paintings, model-work & all. Even Spies Like Us has a big satellite based lightshow in the last 10 minutes, here they have one helicopter.

    Also crucial thing to amend: despite directing being dominated by men, Mike Nichols did not make another movie straight after The Fortune. Whether through choice or number of flops he’d had (probably both) he didn’t direct another feature for 8 years (or a “John Carpenter” as they’re known)

  2. May gave up directing because she’s really writer. She had a horrible time with Robert Evans over “A New Leaf” — which was cut very much against her wishes “The Heartbreak Kid” worked tons better, but as I’m sure you’ll note it takes its cue from its actors — principally Charles Grodin. “Mike and Nicky” (her best film) looks and acts like a Cassavetes movie. And “Ishtar” is pure Warren Beatty — whose over style not only dominates but also relates to the appearance of his then girlfriend du jour Isabelle Adjani .

    In recent years May has successfully reteamed with Nichols to script “Primary Colors” and “The Bird Cage.” But now Mike has left the building. She has now devoted herself to her boyfriend Stanley Donen — who in the wake of Manoel De Oliveira’s passing has become the Oldest living Great Director. She has written a script about show business that she wants him to director. I sincerely hope she pulls it off.

    BTW, the boyfriend has a tag on a chain around his neck that reads “This is Stanley Donen. If Found Please Return to Elaine May”

  3. david wingrove Says:

    I tried to get a job as an extra on ISHTAR when I was backpacking through Marrakesh…but then, so was half the city and it never happened. But I did see Dustin Hoffmann sitting in a folding chair, dressed in a djellabah and smeared with make-up. He was looking very pissed off, so I got the idea this was a flop in the making.

    Is Stanley Donen older or younger than Franco Zeffirelli? I’d always had the idea he was…well, not that interested in ladies.

  4. Pas de tout. Stanley (now in his 90’s) was married to Yvette Mimieux, among others. When the Los Angeles Film Critic Association gave him his Career Achievement Award Yvette spoke –even though they had been divorced for years.

  5. And what’s this about Zefferelli? He isn’t even a GOOD director.

  6. Gilliam told Donen “The sense of romance in your films really messed up my life!” Donen replied, “What do you think it did to me, I’ve been married five times!”

    You’re right, James, took longer to get over The Fortune than I gave him credit for. But he bounced right back from Catch 22, a box-office disappointment more readily comparable to Ishtar in both scale and Grodinism.

    Interesting to hear about the fraught production history of A New Leaf — something I won’t be allowed to talk about in my forthcoming DVD extra! Paramount are very funny about that stuff, even though it was all a long time ago.

  7. I recall seeing in the NYT at still from the film while it was in production. it was from a fantasy scene in which May’s mousey plant-besotted heiress sees herself as Marilyn Monroe. Not a trace of it in the film that was released.

  8. Gilda Radner helped Mike bounce back with this film of her live show

  9. Ishtar is one of my favourite films. I love all her work.

  10. Maybe it improves on further viewings. There are definitely promising things, like Beatty saying he can’t get girls because he doesn’t have Hoffman’s charm and edge. Shaggy is certainly the word for it — there’s no reason for it to have a flashback of how the guys met in act 1. They could have been on the plane to Ishtar in fifteen minutes. One can develop an affection for that sort of inefficiency.

  11. I too love this film, and I liked it pretty much the first time I saw it. “It takes a lot of guts to have nothing at your age” —Surely the least effective approach to talking someone off a ledge in film. The film has gotten funnier for me over time, but the comic high point of this very funny movie is—right, David—the vultures, particularly when loping through the frame as Hoffman and Beatty sink into the dune. Can’t declare outright that these are the funniest performances by any animal in any film, but I can state pretty unequivocally that they are the most hilarious birds, and I’ve had the distinct impression since my first viewing that they’re as funny as they are because May knew exactly how to shoot them.

  12. And what’s this about a Cairns-commented A NEW LEAF? Is this indeed forthcoming?

  13. I always thought the writing was great, but something about the leads put me off. I felt like I was watching two mega stars making fun of small time losers who end up playing the Holiday Inn. And yet they’d both played small time losers before to excellent effect (it was practically Hoffman’s whole resume), and never left a bad taste in my mouth. The desert stuff was funny but not funny enough. I dunno. The exact same movie but with Falk and Arkin, and now we’re talking.

  14. Me and editor Stephen Horne are making a little video essay for Masters of Cinema’ forthcoming A New Leaf Blu-ray, yes.

    Jeff, yes, that’s it. I think probably Beatty is the bigger problem in terms of a successful sex symbol playing a schmuck who can’t even pronounce the word schmuck (and yes, OK, that’s a funny scene). And these guys are not only unsuccessful, they don’t DESERVE to be successful. Preston Sturges had fun with that idea in Christmas in July (world’s worst sloganeer) and The Palm Beach Story (terrible invention) but you don’t have to look at those guys failing to do what they think they’re good at for quite so long…

  15. My problem was always the songs. They’re just terrible, and unfunnily so. I think your comment about how only the one has a central joke is spot on. Not only that, they keep coming, for minutes of film at a time. That’s got to be the make or break of the film, right there. If the joke of these two singing these songs doesn’t work, the whole film doesn’t. Because I too liked parts, and there was just palpable dread in me every time a microphone appeared.

    This also just so happens to be my father’s favorite film of all time, and the only film in his house besides Star Wars and Basic Instinct.

  16. One minor point… while they worked together as a comedy team Nichols and May were not involved romantically. Their comedy pieces remain some of the best ever written. And in much of their subsequent work as directors has much of the same rhythms as their work together.

  17. while they worked together as a comedy team Nichols and May were not involved romantically.

    Nichols’ Wikipedia page says they had a ‘brief romance’ a couple of years before they began performing together, when they would have been barely out of their teens. FWIW I know some former couples like this, who have maintained intense sibling-like relationships through several decades and multiple marriages.

  18. Harry K, I think the songs are wonderful and contribute to the off-beat and quirky charm of the film.

  19. “Charm” isn’t a word I’d really use here, and it hasn’t historically been a high priority of May’s comedy. I’m trying to work out what would make the central joke of two putzes continually dying on stage seem funny to me. Maybe, if like the fictional version of Ed Wood, they were perpetually upbeat? I know they never question their talent, which is probably crucial.

    It immediately feels like it would play easier if they were twenty years younger, for some reason.

    But May isn’t interested in “easy”, I don’t think. All her comedy embraces some sort of challenge in terms of subject matter.

  20. Maybe the songs are too accurately the kind of terrible songs terrible songwriters make. I think I’ve sat in too many rooms with too many people like the leads, playing those songs. I can’t sit back and enjoy, because I break bread with these people.

    I think what might make the songs work is if the songs weren’t just generically, though incredibly bad, but actually directly insulting to whatever context they’re playing in. Perhaps, they always start strong, and then rapidly turn. That way there’s some suspense every time they come out to play in exactly how they’re going to demolish this opportunity. Though this doesn’t solve your ease conundrum.

  21. The vultures are one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, charging in and out of frame like demented Groucho Marx impersonators. There’s no way that’s accidental. They’re being shoved into shot. Genius. Almost on a par with the monkeys in The Circus, but not quite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: