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George At 

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When anyone brings up box office bombs, the biggest movie failures in cinematic history, there are always a couple names that are mentioned early in the discussion.

“Heaven’s Gate”

Usually followed quickly by the 1987 comedy, ISHTAR.

I avoided ISHTAR in the 80’s, never thought about it since, but became intrigued to see it when crossing its path on iTunes on the 30th anniversary of its summer death with moviegoers and near slaying of Columbia Pictures as collateral damage.

How can a movie with Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and Charles Grodin, written and directed by Elaine May be that bad?

The simple answer: IT ISN’T!

I laughed aloud throughout at the saga of perhaps the two worst lounge/bar singers of all time, Lyle Rodgers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman). Like some tenth rate Simon & Garfunkel, the two are convinced that they write terrific songs. They are absolutely sure their stage presence is spot on.

They are hilariously bad. The songs are horrible and the deadpan, lifeless readings of them are somehow worse, but damn funny to watch. Their sessions at the piano making songs up on the spot are Hoffman/Beatty classics.

Talent agent Marty Freed, played perfectly by Jack Weston, offers them a job entertaining in the Middle East, with a long gig at an American bar in the middle of nowhere.

The boys find themselves there and before they’re even out of the airport, they are unknowingly (these are not bright guys) involved in a rebel terrorist plot. Charles Grodin (Heaven Can Wait, The Heartbreak Kid) delivers huge laughs as CIA agent Jim Harrison, who is convinced that one or two of our duo are spies.

May is a brilliant writer (The Birdcage, Primary Colors, The Heartbreak Kid) but one of her most clever spins here was one of the most reviled back in 87. Dustin Hoffman plays the confident lady’s man and Beatty is a shy, awkward geek barely able to make eye contact with any woman. It’s hilarious to watch and Hoffman and Beatty have a great time playing off each other.

Yes, the budget and the story spins out of control a bit in the last act, with our duo engaging in a Rambo like battle with attack helicopters, but who cares? The scene where Hoffman pretends to be a Middle Eastern interpreter is fall over funny, as are any of the scenes in the never-ending lounges in which they hone their act.

Carol Kane and Tess Harper are Lyle and Chuck’s long suffering wives and Isabelle Adjani is Shirra, the rebel leader with an eye for American suckers.

If you have never seen ISHTAR, give it a chance. Apparently it’s like a fine wine. 30 years after its debut, it’s bloomed into a clever, hilarious comedy that I’d watch again in a heartbeat.

Surprisingly, Hoffman and Beatty get an appreciative B.

I guess I better dig into that Director’s Cut of “Heaven’s Gate” soon….

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