A film so maligned when it came out that, almost inevitably, a cult has sprung up around it, and it has fierce defenders. It's a sweet movie, which is flawed. I can see why it wasn't a big hit. I'm not trying to be wise in hindsight here.
There are two main flaws. First, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were about five years too old for their roles. That sounds like an abstract, wanky statement but I'm sorry, it's true. Both give very good performances, have lovely chemistry and clearly defined characters. They have enjoyable by play and commit themselves to their roles. But they're just that bit too old - both were fifty, and so to see them as untalented songwriters is just that bit too sad. Life's past them by - they're never going to improve, or have a success, or a decent relationship. Maybe if their characters had been accountants who took off or something. I guess it's ageist of me but it's how I feel - how many comedies do you enjoy about fifty year old man children?
It's not the main flaw though - that's the story. The first third of this is really good, establishing the characters and their relationship. There's hilarious songs (written by Paul Williams and Elaine May), a lovely warmth and affection, a touching moment when Hoffman goes out on a ledge and Beatty gets him. This is all spot on.
Things get wonky when the action moves to Ishtar. Writer-director May never gets the bread and butter aspects of the story right. I was never clear why so many people were chasing after Hoffman and Beatty. Because of some prophecy about two men? But why? Wouldn't people figure it out? What's so special about them? Why do so many people devote so much resources to them?
Isabelle Adjani gets them involved by borrowing Hoffman's passport - so she knows nothing about Beatty, right? So it's a film where the action is built on two coincidences - Adjani using Hoffman's passport, and then the two men possibly being mistaken for two men in a prophecy? Did I get that right?
The thing is, it wasn't needed. We don't care about that sort of plot, not really - we're there for the stars and jokes and charm. But I kept getting distracted by the flabby plot. Towards the end Hoffman and Beatty realise they've got a map and you go "oh I get that - they've got a map, that's an easy to understand McGuffin"... but the movie's over. They call their agent who negotiates a deal and that's it.
If Beatty and Hoffman had the map from the beginning of act two I think the movie would have been a hit, even with its painted sand dunes and perfectionist leads and director. You could have all the CIA and guerillas and Adjani and everyone chasing after the map - all the adventures would make sense. As it was I struggled to follow it and started to zone out towards the end.
It's a shame because there is so much to admire in the films: the acting is uniformly good (Charles Grodin shines in a support role), the locations are beautiful, the songs funny, there's some really good moments.